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The UK is bracing for the first space launch in its history in 2023 in a landmark moment for the country’s burgeoning space sector, but the historic event won’t look like the rocket launched by NASA, Express.co.uk has been told. Virgin Orbit is hoping to send its LauncherOne rocket blasting into orbit early next year as part of the company’s Start Me Up mission.
But instead of the rocket blasting straight off from the ground in a so-called vertical launch, which you might commonly see in a NASA or SpaceX launch, the LauncherOne will first travel thousands of miles up into the air under the wing a modified Boeing 747.
The adapted plane, dubbed Cosmic Girl, is set to take off from Spaceport Cornwall’s site at Newquay Airport Cornwall in what is known as a horizontal launch.
On the night, the 31-tonne LauncherOne rocket will get carried under Cosmic Girl’s left wing when it takes off from the runway. The plan will take off at around midnight before flying to a predetermined point off of the southwestern tip of Ireland, above the Atlantic Ocean.
The retrofitted Boeing 747-400 will then fly in a holding loop until the launch engineers give the go-ahead for rocket ignition. Following a 16-minute countdown, the Cosmic Girl will drop the rocket from under its wing and pull safely away.
Launcher One’s rocket motors will then fire up, blasting LauncherOne up to 22 times the speed of sound as it roars out of the atmosphere and into low-Earth orbit to deploy the satellites
Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, told Express.co.uk that she hopes this will be the first of many horizontal launches, with no plans for her spaceport to host a NASA-style vertical launch.
She said: “We are very much just interested in air launch. For us, we have the runway, which is our launch pad. That is our asset. It is long and goes out into the sea and that is what you need for air launches.
“Also, we are an airport. We are integrating launches into an active airport and not shutting the actual aviation side…We don’t have to push just launch.”
This is the start of a wider line of activities…as a business model it works really well.”
Ms Thorpe added that Virgin Orbit’s Start Me Up mission, named after a song of the same name by iconic British rock band The Rolling Stone’s, will be the first of many horizontal launches hosted by the spaceport.
She said: “This is not a one-hit wonder. This is the first of what is going to be a sustained business activity over the coming years launching with Virgin, but we will have other launch operators coming to use the site now that we have announced that we are open for business. “
Science Minister George Freeman, who is also the minister for Space, also told Express.co.uk during an exclusive interview that the main strategy is to make the UK a “home of the commercial space sector as it grows”.
He said: “We are seeing a move from a Cold War-dominated period in which space has been largely dominated by vertical sovereign military capabilities like China, Russia and the US.
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“We are now going into a huge commercial expansion with smaller satellites, smaller payloads for commercial use. We see Spaceport Cornwall…primarily as a commercial spaceport for low-earth observation small satellites.”
The LauncherOne wil be carrying nine small satellites with a variety of purposes, referred as payloads in the industry, up into orbit when the mission finally goes ahead. It comes after months of delay as Virgin reported technical issues.
The mission has been hit with some delays, with a launch date originally pinpointed for December. But with just a few licenses for the satellites needed before blast-off, the event is edging closer.
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