Satellites prepared for the UK’s first orbital launch

Satellites prepared for the UK’s first orbital launch

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

Inside these containers are the nine satellites, which will be the first-ever payloads to be launched from the UK.

You will ascend on a rocket operated by British entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit Company.

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

A converted Virgin Atlantic jumbo will carry the rocket and its passengers across the Atlantic to a designated launch zone south of Ireland.

At the opportune moment, at an altitude of 35,000 feet, the 747 will release the rocket, which will then fire its engine to begin its ascent high into the sky.

Map

Map

The event is billed as a major event for the UK space sector.

Known internationally for manufacturing satellites of all sizes, the country’s space industry has always had to ship its products to foreign spaceports to get them into orbit.

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

This means cost and time savings for UK firms, but hope is the final piece of the puzzle that will also make Britain more attractive to companies from other nations to come and invest.

The first launch in Cornwall will support a range of civil and military applications.

Some of these nine satellites will collect information, such as intercepting radio transmissions coming from ships.

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

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

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

rocket

rocket

All satellites are so-called CubeSats. They’re not much bigger than a toaster. The miniaturization of electronics now allows engineers to pack a lot of power into very small volumes.

The satellites are held in dispensers at the tip of the rocket. These are the fields you see in the image at the top of this page.

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

When exactly the mission will take place is still somewhat uncertain.

Both Spaceport Cornwall (Newquay Airport) and Virgin Orbit are awaiting licenses which have yet to be issued by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

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

Last week, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee released a report saying the time taken for the licenses to be issued was “disappointing” as everyone had been led to believe a September launch was likely be.

The CAA will not comment on individual licenses, but emphasizes the detail and seriousness that goes into building the many thousands of pages that support an application.

The agency employs what it considers a streamlined process, which it calls a “results-based regime.” This means setting the expected broad standards, for example in terms of design and security, but leaving it up to the licensee to meet these requirements.

The CAA has announced that over time it will move to multi-launch licenses, allowing operators to conduct many missions with a single permit.

Cosmic Girl

The modified jumbo carries the missile to the launch zone under its left wing

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