Satellites prepared for first orbital launch in UK

They may look like nondescript gray boxes, but they’re about to make history.

Inside these containers are the nine satellites that will become the first ever payloads to be launched into orbit from the UK.

They will ride on a rocket operated by British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit company.

The mission, which is expected to take place over the next few weeks, will be launched from Cornwall.

It will see a converted Virgin Atlantic jumbo ferry the rocket and its passengers over the Atlantic to a designated launch area just south of Ireland.

When the time is right, at an altitude of 35,000 feet, the 747 will release the rocket, which will then fire its engine to begin the climb high in the sky.

Map

Map

The event is billed as an important event for the UK space sector.

Internationally renowned for manufacturing satellites of all sizes, the country’s space industry has always had to send its products to foreign spaceports to put them into orbit.

The addition of launch capability means the sector will be able to do everything from initial design to mission operations in the future.

It means saving time and money for UK businesses, but the hope is that the final piece of the puzzle will also make the UK a more attractive place for businesses from other countries to come and invest.

Cornwall’s first launch will support a range of applications, both civil and defence.

A number of these nine satellites will collect intelligence, such as listening for radio transmissions from ships.

One payload that has caught particular attention is Wales’ first-ever satellite.

Produced by Cardiff start-up Space Forge, it will demonstrate key components of future orbital mini-factories.

The company plans to manufacture high-quality, high-fidelity materials in the weightless environment of space before bringing them back to Earth.

Rocket

Rocket

All satellites are called cubesats. They’re not much bigger than a toaster. The miniaturization of electronics now allows engineers to cram a lot of performance into very small volumes.

The satellites are held on top of the rocket in distributors. These are the boxes you see in the image at the top of this page.

When the Virgin rocket reaches the correct altitude, the doors will open on the dispensers and springs will gently eject the spacecraft.

Exactly when the mission will take place is a bit uncertain at the moment.

Spaceport Cornwall (Newquay Airport) and Virgin Orbit are both awaiting licenses which have not yet been issued by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

The CAA estimated earlier this year that it would take 6 to 12 months to process a license application from a spaceport, and 9 to 18 months from a rocket operator.

Last week, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee released a report in which it said the time taken to issue licenses was “disappointing”, given that everyone had been led to believe that a launch was likely in September.

The CAA will not comment on individual licenses, but emphasizes the detail and seriousness needed to produce the thousands of pages that support an application.

The authority uses what it believes to be a streamlined process, what it calls a “results-based regime”. This means setting the general expected standards in terms of design and safety, for example, but leaving it up to the operator to meet these requirements.

The CAA said over time it would move to multi-launch licensing, allowing operators to fly many missions with a single approval.

cosmic girl

The modified jumbo carries the rocket to the launch pad hidden under its left wing

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