On Monday night, a historical landmark in the U.K. will take place when a modified Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 aircraft takes off from Cornwall, England, to launch the first orbital space mission from British soil. This UK Space Agency-backed mission is a collaboration between the Royal Air Force, Virgin Orbit, and Cornwall Council, and will be the first commercial satellite launch from Western Europe.
The launch of nine small satellites into low Earth orbit will mark the first international launch for Virgin Orbit, the nasdaq-listed company founded by British billionaire Richard Branson – as well as being the first U.K. orbital space launch. Approximately an hour into the flight, the aircraft will reach 35,000 feet and release the rocket carrying the satellites over the Atlantic Ocean south of Ireland.
These satellites have mixed civil and defense purposes, such as those working in navigational technology and those looking to manufacture materials such as electronic components in space. Ian Annett, Deputy Chief Executive at the U.K. Space Agency, said, “This is the start of a new era for the U.K. in terms of launch capabilities” and that there is a strong market demand for small satellite launches. He added that the U.K. has ambitions to be ”the hub of European launches”.
The mission was initially scheduled for late 2020, but was postponed due to technical and regulatory challenges. It is still not known whether more launches like this will occur in the near future. However, with the ongoing challenges of entering the space industry, this mission marks a new era in U.K. space exploration.