UK fails to launch satellites into space from home

A Virgin Boeing 747 plane carries a rocket under its wing during takeoff from Newquay Space Center in Cornwall on January 9, 2023.

It was to be a giant leap for the British space industry: On Monday January 9, the first rocket ever launched into space from British soil successfully detached from the plane carrying it, catapulting the country into the “exclusive” club capable of sending vehicles into orbit. The Virgin Orbit Boeing 747 carrying the 21m rocket lifted off at 11:02 p.m. Monday evening from Newquay Airport in south-west England to launch nine satellites into space, a UK first -United.

While the British news channels evoked this historic success, Virgin Orbit announced an anomaly that appeared during the ascent of the Cosmic Girl rocket into orbit.

Yet, at first, Richard Branson’s company announced that the rocket had successfully detached from the plane and its engines had ignited at a height of 35,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, south of Ireland, around 12:15 a.m., to reach the desired orbit. In the end, it did not put the nine satellites it was carrying into orbit. The rocket was able to return safely to the space center.

British billionaire Richard Branson’s company, Virgin Orbit, which specializes in space launches for small satellites, led the mission, dubbed “Start Me Up”. For the first time satellites were to be launched from Europe (excluding Russia), UK Space Agency Deputy Director Ian Annett said on Sunday, calling the launch a ” new era “ for space exploration.

Final preparations around the Virgin Boeing 747 before takeoff at the Newquay Space Center in Cornwall on January 9, 2023.

“Joining this very exclusive club of launch countries is so important because it gives us our own access to space, this sovereign access to space that we have never had before in the UK”, had insisted on Monday on the BBC Melissa Thorpe, director of Spaceport Cornwall, from where the plane took off. From a geopolitical point of view, “it gives us control of who and how we organize our launches”she added, recalling that Europe had lost its access to the Russian Soyuz launcher since the invasion of Ukraine, compromising its access to space.

A particular modus operandi

The 21-meter rocket, dubbed LauncherOne, was attached under the wing of a modified Boeing 747, called “Cosmic Girl”. Once the proper altitude was reached, the plane released the rocket, which then started its own engine to propel itself into space and place its cargo in orbit.

Launching a rocket from an airplane is easier than a vertical takeoff because, theoretically, a simple airstrip is enough, instead of an expensive space launch pad. This is not the first time that Virgin Orbit, which offers a fast and adaptable space launch service for satellites between 300 and 500 kg, has put rockets launched from planes into orbit.

The rocket named 'Cosmic Girl' before being installed under the wing of the Boeing 747 operated by Virgin Orbit to launch satellites into space.  UK release January 9, 2023.

Founded in 2017 by British billionaire Richard Branson, the company succeeded, for the first time in January 2021, in putting a rocket into space using this method, after a Boeing 747 took off in the Californian desert. For the UK launch, nine satellites are to be put into orbit with varying purposes, “from Earth observation to monitoring illegal fishing to building satellites and products to manufacture them in space”explained Melissa Thorpe.

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Until then, British satellites had to be launched into space from abroad. But the country is seeking to support its aerospace industry, after its role in European projects was called into question by Brexit. In addition to the Spaceport in Cornwall, the United Kingdom wants to open a space base in Sutherland, in the north of Scotland, and another on an island in Shetlands. According to a statement from the Scottish Government in early January, launches are planned from these two bases ” in the coming months “.

The World with AFP


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