UK's first space launch date is set as Virgin Orbit rocket prepares for lift-off

The date for the UK’s first-ever space launch has been set as VirginOne prepares its LauncherOne mission to take off from Spaceport Cornwall. According to NASA Spaceflight editor Chris Bergin on Twitter: “Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne mission has a ‘launch window scheduled to open Dec. 14, 2022, but that date could change to Dec. 15-16 or later’.“It’ll take off with Cosmic Girl from Cornwall, UK. The launch will be over the Atlantic.”

While the two-stage-to-orbit, air-launched, 70-foot-long LauncherOne rocket has been used in five missions, this is the first to depart from UK soil. Previous missions departed from the Mojave Air and Space Port of California, in the USA.

Next week’s scheduled mission — dubbed “Start Me Up” — also represents the Virgin Orbit’s first international launch and the first commercial launch from Western Europe.

Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart has said: “What an incredible honour it is for us to be part of something as monumental as bringing Britain into the business of launch.

“Working with our partners across the UK government, we’re starting up a new capability that will serve the people, the economy, and the security of the UK.”

According to Virgin Orbit, the flight manifest for “Start Me Up” is completely full. It includes payloads provided by seven global customers.

Among these are the two shoebox-sized satellites — known as ‘CubeSats’, after their shape — that will make up the Ministry of Defense (MOD)’s Defense Science & Technology Laboratory’s Prometheus-2 mission.

According to the UK Space Agency, the pair of CubeSats “will provide a test platform for monitoring radio signals including GPS and sophisticated imaging, paving the way for a more collaborative and connected space communication system with our allies.”

Joining the Prometheus-2 craft onboard LauncherOne will also be “DOVER”, a pathfinder satellite for resilient global navigation satellite systems; “ForgeStar-o”, an in-space manufacturing facility designed to return to Earth for re-use; and “AMAN”, a single Earth-observation satellite that represents the first orbital mission for the Sultanate of Oman.

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On the occasion of the launch equipment departing California for Cornwall back in mid-October, the Minister of State for Industry and Investment Security, Nusrat Ghani, said: “As we move ever closer to the first satellite launch from UK soil, it’s excellent to see the progress being made by Virgin Orbit, Spaceport Cornwall and those across government in delivering this historic mission, the first of its kind in Europe.

“With 47,000 jobs across the U.K., our growing space industry is a vital part of the economy and has an important role to play in catalysing investment, generating growth and prosperity. I’m looking forward to working with this innovative sector and delivering on our National Space Strategy.”

Air Vice-Marshal Paul Godrey of UK Space Command added: “The very first space launch, carrying government and industry satellite payloads, marks ‘Start Me Up’ as a historic moment for the United Kingdom.

“Developing new launch capabilities will build on the strengths of our space sector and attract companies from around the world to benefit from these commercial opportunities. This will catalyse investment, bring new jobs to communities and organisations right across the UK, as well as inspiring the next generation of space scientists and engineers.”

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According to Virgin Orbit, the “Start Me Up” mission is so-called in tribute to the 1981 song of the same name by the English rock band the “Rolling Stones”.

The mission is expected to see the 31-tonne LauncherOne rocket attached to the underside of Cosmic Girl’s left wing, which will take off at around midnight before flying to a predetermined point off of the southwestern tip of Ireland, above the Atlantic Ocean.

The specially retrofitted Boeing 747-400 will then fly in a holding loop until the launch engineers give the rocket a green light for ignition. Following a 16-minute countdown, LauncherOne will be dropped from Cosmic Girl’s wing.

After giving the airliner a chance to pull safely away, the rocket motors will fire, accelerating LauncherOne up to 22 times the speed of sound as it roars out of the atmosphere and into low-Earth orbit for the deployment of its satellite payloads.

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