On 9 January 2023, Spaceport Cornwall hosted the United Kingdom’s first attempt to launch satellites into space. But it ended in failure. American company, Virgin Orbit, launched a converted Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747, Cosmic Girl. Around an hour and 20 minutes into the flight, the modified jumbo jet released the LauncherOne rocket 35,000 ft over the Atlantic Ocean. Despite taking off and ascending successfully, Virgin Orbit later announced that there had been an “anomaly that has prevented us from reaching orbit”. Although the Boeing, piloted by a Royal Air Force pilot, returned to Cornwall, unfortunately, the rocket and satellites were destroyed.
Needless to say, the team behind the launch are disappointed with the outcome. Head of Spaceport Cornwall, Melissa Thorpe, expressed, “We’re feeling awful, to be honest – I’m not going to lie. We put so much into this, everybody has, so it is absolutely gutting. But it’s space and the cliché is it’s hard. We know it’s hard.”
With 47,000 people working in the UK space sector, the country comes second to the US in satellite production. But having had to depend on foreign spaceports to send said satellites into orbit, this launch from Spaceport Cornwall was to be a milestone in the UK’s space history. In fact, this historic launch was not only meant to be UK’s first orbital launch ever but it was also to be the first international launch for Virgin Orbit, and the first commercial launch from Western Europe.
CEO of Virgin Orbit, Dan Hart, stated, “We are mindful that we failed to provide our customers with the launch service they deserve. The first-time nature of this mission added layers of complexity that our team professionally managed through; however, in the end a technical failure appears to have prevented us from delivering the final orbit.”
Despite this mission failure, not all hope is lost. It is only a rocky start to the beginning of a new era in the UK’s space industry. Thorpe firmly radiated the sentiments of Spaceport Cornwall’s team when she said, “This isn’t the first time we’ve been knocked, this is the biggest definitely, but I feel OK and we’ll get up and we’ll go again”.
Spaceport Cornwall is only one of seven spaceports that are being built across Britain, with five others in Scotland and one in Wales. Adding launch capability, on top of satellite production, will further elevate the country’s space sector’s capacity to facilitate entire projects from design through to mission operations.