The U.K. has moved a step closer to launching rockets to orbit in the near-future, after the U.K. Space Agency (UKSA) announced $9.5 million (£7.35 million) in funding for Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit company to begin launches by the end of 2021.
The funds are intended to help Virgin Orbit fly its LauncherOne rocket from a new spaceport being developed at Cornwall Airport Newquay. LauncherOne will be carried into the sky under the wing of a modified Boeing 747 aircraft called Cosmic Girl, where it will then be dropped and fly under its own engines into orbit.
“We’re tremendously excited to be supporting the U.K. Space Agency and Cornwall Council by bringing space launch to the U.K.,” Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said in a statement. “We’re eager to set up a world-class launch facility at Spaceport Cornwall.”
According to the statement, the funds will be used “to develop launch operations support systems and manufacture them in the U.K.” in addition to conducting “mission planning, and to further ready the facility for satellite launches from Cornwall”.
This award is part of a larger funding package of $26 million (£20 million) from Cornwall Council and the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership, while Virgin Orbit have also said they will contribute about $3.2 million (£2.5 million) to the Spaceport Cornwall project. The hope is that Cornwall could become a hub for European launches to space in the future.
Virgin Orbit – a sister company to the space tourism-focused Virgin Galactic –has been busy testing its Cosmic Girl plane and LauncherOne rocket at the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California. In July this year, the company successfully performed a “drop test” of the rocket over a testing range at Edwards Air Force Base.
LauncherOne is designed to take satellites weighing a combined 500 kilograms into orbit, although Virgin Orbit has also announced plans to conduct missions to Mars and other deep space destinations. The two-stage rocket measures 16 meters long, and will be dropped from altitudes of about 10,700 meters for launches to space.
Ultimately Virgin Orbit is hoping to conduct flights at about $12 million (£9.3 million) per launch from both Mojave and Cornwall. The company has highlighted the rapid responsiveness of the system as one of its key selling points, being ready to launch with as little as 24 hours’ notice, a capability that has attracted the attention of the British Royal Air Force.
“We want the UK to be the first country in Europe to give its small satellite manufacturers a clear route from the factory to the spaceport,” Chris Skidmore, the U.K.’s Science Minister, said in a statement. “Today’s announcement will help the U.K. to harness the commercial opportunities offered by the global space industry and put the U.K. firmly on the map as Europe’s leading launch destination.”
Spaceport Cornwall is one of several U.K. locations being developed for launches to space in the near-future. One of the other frontrunners is a vertical launch site being developed in Sutherland, Scotland, where companies like the U.K.’s Orbex intend to conduct small-satellite launches to polar orbit in the early 2020s.