Ready or not, Branson says his rocket is on its way to Newquay

Posted By on 11th October 2022

By Peter Tremayne and Richard Whitehouse

The Civil Aviation Authority is coming under intense political pressure to grant safety and environmental licences for Richard Branson’s rocket, due to launch from Newquay within weeks.

The tycoon’s carrier aircraft, a Boeing 747 called Cosmic Girl, has moved from the Mohave desert to Florida and could arrive in Cornwall any day.

If successful, the launch would be the first time satellites have reached orbit from UK soil.

Ministers are known to be frustrated that take-off has been postponed several times.  The first launch from Newquay had been due in June, and then September.  The most recent promised launch window opens on 29th October.

Some of the CAA’s difficulties were described by Cornwall Reports yesterday (Monday).  The rules and regulations, described in the 2018 Space Industry Act, require applicants to demonstrate they have taken “all reasonable steps to ensure that the risks to public safety posed by their activities are as low as are reasonably practicable.”

The words are loose enough to allow for some interpretation.  The CAA told Cornwall Reports:  “As the UK’s space regulator, we’re assessing a range of applications for space activity from the UK. Licensing decisions will be made once we’ve completed our assessments of the applications against regulatory requirements set out by Parliament and are satisfied they have been met.”

Bizarrely, Cornwall Council has still not signed any legally-binding contract with Mr Branson – fuelling concern that the spaceport will never actually earn any revenue for County Hall, despite the vast public expenditure which went into its construction.  Most of the satellites due to launch from Newquay have military and intelligence agency applications.

Meanwhile preparation for a launch, probably in early November, is underway at Newquay – adding to the pressure on the CAA.  Spaceport bosses yesterday invited selected media to tour its recently-completed “integration facility” to see how satellites are prepared before being fitted to Mr Branson’s rocket.

Richard Whitehouse writes:  In a highly controlled environment to prevent any contamination of the intricate pieces of technology people have been working in Spaceport Cornwall’s Space Systems Integration Facility getting the satellite ready to be loaded into LauncherOne, the rocket system which will send it into orbit.

LauncherOne will be attached to Cosmic Girl, Virgin Orbit’s aircraft which is used to undertake horizontal launches and will be the first to take off from Spaceport Cornwall during a launch window which opens at the end of this month.

Watching through a window into the Space Systems Integration Facility is akin to watching surgeons in an operating theatre as people dressed in PPE delicately handle the components which will be in the shoebox-sized satellite known as Amber-1.

Those parts had travelled down to Spaceport Cornwall from Scotland where they had been built with experts from there working with colleagues at Spaceport Cornwall to prepare the satellite, which will be used to gather marine intelligence and help with issues such as piracy, illegal fishing and trafficking.

Tim Pinchin, from Satellite Applications Catapult, has been part of the team which has brought the satellite to Spaceport Cornwall, he said: “The satellite Amber-1 is the first of 20 satellites that Horizon Technologies are going to be launching and it is here to demonstrate the capability.

“What it does it looks at ships on the sea and it will monitor their activity, even if they have turned off the monitoring system that every ship has built into it. So it can do things like looking at any sort of activity that might be out of the ordinary or unusual or even, potentially, illegal and then monitor that and then give that information to the governments or organisations to let them know what is going on and it can help in the fight against piracy, terrorism or illegal fishing.”

He explained that previously companies which built satellites would have to send them abroad to be able to get them into space, but that now that Spaceport Cornwall is operational they will be able to do so in the UK, saving money and reducing impact on the environment.

 

Tim said: “Having it in the UK is a remarkable thing, it completes the circle for us and it is the next big step in the UK’s space industry, it means that satellites now, for the first time, can be designed, built, launched and operated all from within the UK. It is a game changer for the industry.

“The industry is so excited about having this capability in the UK, it changes everything, you don’t have to transport that away anymore, you can launch it from here and come down and be a part of that launch. We have a team down here from Scotland here today helping to integrate that satellite – it brings it all into one place and it is such a great thing for Cornwall. We have had Goonhilly here and that has been a centre for communications in the UK, but to have this here now as well that growth of satellite systems in Cornwall and for the rest of the UK is just going to be meteoric.”

Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, said that it was an “exciting day for Cornwall  and the UK.”

She added: “It is the first time we have had launch here in the UK, we build a huge majority of the world’s satellites here and every single one of them at the moment goes overseas for launch so we are not only losing that market opportunity and that money but we are also impacting things like climate change because of all the shipping cost of transporting these satellites around the globe and that is something we want to do here, we want to launch them responsibly, sending satellites down the road rather than overseas, so it is a big moment, we are able to control how we launch into space for the first time ever, know who we’re launching with and we know exactly what every satellite is going to be doing. From an ethical point of view it’s really important for us here at Spaceport Cornwall.”

Amber-1 will be one of several small satellites which will be loaded onto LauncherOne and Cosmic Girl when it has its first launch from Spaceport Cornwall. The launch window opens on October 29 and the first launch could take place in the days after that date.

BBC Local Democracy Service