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Launch window opens for UK’s first orbital mission

All systems go for first space mission in UK as project partners announce the official opening of the Start Me Up launch window

Partners for the UK’s first orbital launch – namely the United Kingdom Space Agency (UKSA), Cornwall Council, the Royal Air Force and Virgin Orbit – have announced that the initial window for their mission will officially open on 9 January at 22:16 UTC.

The Start Me Up mission will carry satellites from seven customers to space, including commercial and government payloads from several nations and a collaborative US-UK mission. The missions of the satellites will span a wide range of activities aimed at improving life on Earth, including reducing the environmental impact of production; preventing illegal trafficking, smuggling and terrorism; and national security functions.

Start Me Up will be the fifth consecutive Virgin Orbit launch to carry payloads for both private companies and government agencies. All of the prior 33 satellites were carried by LauncherOne to their desired orbit, while, said the company, demonstrating the ability to fly through and above inclement weather, integrate rapid-call up payloads, and reach a broader range of orbits than would be possible from a traditional ground-launch system.

The launch was acquired by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) from Virgin Orbit National Systems, a Virgin Orbit US subsidiary serving classified customers, as the first task order on NRO’s Streamlined Launch Indefinite Delivery, Indefinite Quantity Contract, or SLIC.

The forthcoming mission from Cornwall in the far south west of England, titled Start Me Up in honour of the Rolling Stones’ 1981 hit, will contain many firsts: the first orbital launch from the UK, the first international launch for Virgin Orbit, and the first commercial launch from western Europe. Given the number of firsts being executed for this launch, Virgin Orbit and partners said they will maintain a conservative posture with regard to system health, weather and all other elements of scheduling. Additional backup dates will continue into mid and late January.

The Virgin Orbit LauncherOne system that will conduct the mission is now mated to its carrier aircraft, a Boeing 747 dubbed Cosmic Girl, at Spaceport Cornwall. On 8 January, a LauncherOne system successfully completed an end-to-end launch rehearsal, taking the integrated system through to the loading of propellants and proceeding through terminal count, resulting in the verification of the health of the system and readiness of the team.

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rockets are designed and manufactured in Long Beach, California, and are air-launched from the wing of a converted Boeing 747-400 aircraft named Cosmic Girl. The air-launch platform can take off from any runway long enough to handle a Boeing 747. Not reliant on traditional spaceports that support vertical launches, this capability, said Virgin Orbit, creates a new level of mobility for satellite launch, thereby enabling sovereign launch capability in new markets.

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Spaceport Cornwall received the UK’s first-ever spaceport licence from the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in November 2022. In late December, Virgin Orbit was issued first-of-their-kind launch and range control licences, which ensured all regulatory, safety and environmental requirements have been met. Just this week, the CAA announced that all of the satellites flying on this mission have also received their licences.

“We are entering a new era for space in the UK with the first-ever satellite launch from UK soil and from Europe,” said Ian Annett, deputy CEO at the UK Space Agency.

“This is a significant landmark for the nation, the UK Space Agency and for all those who have worked so hard over many years to make our ambitions to create a commercial space launch capability a reality.

“The development of new orbital launch capabilities is already generating growth, catalysing investment and creating jobs in Cornwall and other communities across the UK,” he said. “This will lead to new careers, improved productivity and inspire the next generation of space professionals, and this is just the beginning. I look forward to seeing more launches from other UK spaceports over the next year, putting us firmly on the map as Europe’s leading destination for commercial small satellite launch.”

Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart added: “After ensuring that every technical aspect is sound and every regulation and code has been satisfied, it is gratifying to see this historic endeavour on the verge of coming to fruition.

“This launch represents the opening of a new era in the British space industry, and new partnerships across industry, government and allies. Space is already responsible for tens of thousands of jobs across the UK, the global industry is growing quickly, and so is the potential. And this launch is demonstrating that with the Virgin Orbit LauncherOne system, an airport can become a spaceport that sends humankind’s innovations on their journey.”

Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, said: “This is a phenomenal moment with incredible international collaboration. Virgin Orbit, the UK Space Agency and all of our partners are breaking new ground to transform access to space across the world from right here in Cornwall. My team at Spaceport Cornwall have worked so hard to get this far, and we wish everyone the best of luck as the launch window opens. We are ready.”

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