Technology: A giant leap for the British space industry


TechnologyA giant leap for the British space industry

For the first time, Britain will try to send satellites into space.

A 21 meter long rocket is attached under the wing of a modified Boeing 747.


A plane is due to take off from Cornwall on Monday night to launch nine satellites into space, the first in the UK. A Boeing 747 will fly from Newquay Airport in south-west England at 22:16 (23:16 in Switzerland). It carries a rocket that will then be launched from the aircraft to reach orbit.

The mission, called “Start Me Up” in reference to the Rolling Stones hit, is being carried out by British billionaire Richard Branson’s company Virgin Orbit. It is the first time that satellites will be launched from Europe (excluding Russia), UK Space Agency deputy director Ian Annett said on Sunday. He called the launch a “new era” for space exploration.

“Cosmic Girl”

“Becoming a member of this very exclusive club of launch countries is so important because it gives us our own access to space, this sovereign access to space that we’ve never had before in the UK”, stressed on Monday on the BBC Melissa Thorpe, director of Spaceport Cornwall from where the plane will take off.

From a geopolitical point of view, “it gives us control over who and how we organize our launches,” she added. Melissa Thorpe remembered that Europe had lost its access to the Russian Soyuz launcher since the invasion of Ukraine, compromising its access to space.

The 21 meter long rocket, called ‘LauncherOne’, is attached under the wing of a modified Boeing 747 called ‘Cosmic Girl’. Once the correct altitude is reached, the aircraft releases the rocket, which starts its own engine to propel itself into space and place its payload into orbit. Launching a rocket from an airplane is easier than a vertical launch because, theoretically, a simple runway is enough instead of an expensive launch pad.

Nine satellites

Virgin Orbit had only succeeded in putting a rocket into space via this method in January 2021, after takeoff of a Boeing 747 in the Californian desert. For the UK launch, nine satellites will be put into orbit for various purposes, ‘from Earth observation and illegal fishing monitoring to building satellites and products to manufacture them in space’, explained Melissa Thorpe.

In case of last minute concerns or if weather conditions are not met on Monday evening, other dates are scheduled in the coming weeks. Until then, British satellites had to be launched into space from abroad, but the country is looking to support its aerospace industry after its role in European projects was called into question by Brexit.

In addition to the Cornwall Spaceport, Britain wants to open a space base in Sutherland, in northern Scotland, and another on an island in Shetland. According to a statement from the Scottish Government in early January, launches from these two bases are planned “in the coming months”.


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