Branson’s rocket launch – next week or next year? Inside the complex world of licensing spaceflight

Posted By on 6th December 2022

By Peter Tremayne

Speculation is growing that Richard Branson might try to launch his rocket next week, despite today (Tuesday) still lacking at least three licences from the Civil Aviation Authority and three others from airspace controllers in Ireland, Spain and Portugal.

National media organisations have advised journalists to be on standby for a possible launch on 14th December.  An Independent Television News report, however, suggests that the first launch next year is more likely.

The Civil Aviation Authority told ITN yesterday: “the remaining licences from the CAA that Virgin Orbit require are a launch operator licence, a range control licence and the satellites.”

Richard Branson’s rocket is due to carry at least eight satellites.  Each needs a separate CAA licence.

Aviation authorities around the world have to liase and cooperate to ensure the safe operation of aircraft.  Mr Branson’s launch from Newquay is the first time the tycoon has had to deal with more than just the US Federal Aviation Authority.

Meanwhile Cornwall Reports has learned how private sector consultants have played a role in the CAA licensing process.  Marex is a London-based international consultancy with a particular skillset in the North Sea oil industry.

The firm recently carried out a research project titled “Explosion Hazard Analysis At Spaceports.”  A report of this work claims some credit for Cornwall’s spaceport obtaining its licence.

Marex has worked with another private sector consultant, Saturn SMS, which claims to advise spaceports and operators on the licensing process.

“Marex was asked to look at fire and explosion hazards associated with operations at a space launch site,” says the Marex website. “Industry guidance was recognised from the US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA), but Saturn SMS wanted to test this with more specific modelling.

“The safety of people and equipment around the launch sites is paramount and they needed to know safe distances, in what is a relatively new field of commercial space transport.

“They wanted to ensure they had reduced the accident risk to make it as low as possible.

“They were looking:

  • to analyse the consequences of fire and explosion events on personnel and equipment at the launch site using quantitative and qualitative techniques.
  • to determine the potential for fire and explosion event escalation to other hazardous consequences.
  • to identify deficiencies or opportunities for improvement and to make recommendations for measures required to reduce the fire and explosion risks to a level that is as low as reasonably practicable

This research involves using a computer software programme known as Phast, used in a wide range of situations to analyse hazards and undertake risk assessments.  It is thought to have been used to predict what would happen if Mr Branson’s 57,000lb rocket suffered an accident at the spaceport, on take off, or before it cleared the Cornwall coast.

Phast’s marketing says:  “One of the problems compounding this for people running major hazard facilities is that the number of explosions you could possibly have is extensive. Different leak locations, different weather at different times, even different weather directions at different times, complex arrays of confined and congested regions; these all add up to a huge amount of information to manage and model.”

The official Cornwall Council risk analysis has concluded that a blast exclusion zone of 1,200 feet – only 400 yards – is safe enough.  It is not known what people living close to the spaceport think of this.  The council has not asked them.