Virgin Orbit secures licenses for UK’s first space launch

Virgin Orbit has secured licenses to operate the UK’s first space launch.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said contractor Sir Richard Branson’s company had demonstrated that it had ‘taken all reasonable steps to ensure that the safety risks arising from launch activities are as low as reasonably possible”.

Virgin Orbit is planning a launch from Spaceport Cornwall at Cornwall Newquay Airport in the coming weeks.

The mission named Start Me Up after rock band The Rolling Stones will involve a repurposed Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 and Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket.

The 747 will take off horizontally from the new Cornwall Airport facility in Newquay while carrying the rocket, before launching it 35,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean south of Ireland.

The plane will return to the spaceport, while the rocket will fire up its engine and take several small satellites into orbit with a variety of civilian and defense applications.

These will be the first satellites launched into space from Europe.

Satellites produced in the UK previously had to be sent to foreign spaceports to send them into space.

CAA Director for Space Regulation Tim Johnson said: “This is another major step in delivering the first-ever orbital space launch from UK shores, and these licenses will help Virgin Orbit in its final launch preparations.

“Effective licensing is an integral part of UK space activity, and with public safety at the heart of our decision-making, we have worked with Virgin Orbit to assess their applications and deliver licenses on schedule.”

Virgin Orbit Chief Executive Dan Hart said: “Receiving the range and launch licenses from Virgin Orbit brings us closer to the first satellite launch from UK soil.

“This is a significant milestone for CAA and represents the successful completion of a huge effort, which has included building new policies, new processes and new teams.

“With our partners at the UK Civil Aviation Authority, Spaceport Cornwall, the UK Space Agency and our payload customers, we are progressing together towards the first launch from Cornwall – with a focus on a safe and successful mission for all.”

Transport Secretary Mark Harper said: “Today we are one step closer to the opening of the UK’s Galactic Gateway, with Virgin Orbit receiving an historic first license to enable the first-ever spaceflight launch in UK.

“The planned launch reinforces our position as a leading space nation as we look to the future of spaceflight, which can drive growth and innovation across the sector, as well as create thousands of jobs and of learning.”

The CAA said it granted the licenses within 15 months of receiving evidence from Virgin Orbit about its plans.

The time frame estimated by the regulator for issuing space flight licenses is between nine and 18 months.

Spaceport Cornwall is one of seven spaceports under development across Britain.

The first vertical space launch is expected to take place next year from SaxaVord’s planned spaceport on Unst in Shetland.

A public consultation on the environmental effects of the spaceport was launched by the CAA last month.

The locations of four other proposed spaceports in Scotland are: the A’ Mhoine Peninsula in Sutherland; Prestwick in South Ayrshire; Campbeltown to Argyll and Bute; and North Uist in the Outer Hebrides.

Another spaceport has been planned at Llanbedr, Gwynedd, in North Wales.

The government hopes commercial space launches will bring £3.8 billion to the UK economy over the next decade.

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