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Virgin Orbit confirms partnership with RAF for rapid response satellite launch

Virgin Orbit, the company planning to launch satellites from Cornwall, has announced a new partnership with the Royal Air Force to provide rapid-response launch services beginning as early as next year.

The move is being seen as a huge potential boost for Cornwall’s satellite launch ambitions given that Spaceport Cornwall at Cornwall Airport Newquay has been chosen by Virgin Orbit as the company’s UK base.

The news follows an announcement from Defence Secretary Penny Mordaunt yesterday [July 18] that the Ministry of Defence was committing £30m to fast-track the launch of a small satellite demonstrator within a year. The Minister also announced that an RAF test pilot would be assigned to Virgin Orbit.

Virgin Orbit has now confirmed that it will work in partnership with the RAF to provide satellite launch services using its Boing 747-400 carrier aircraft and LauncherOne rocket. The system carries the rocket under the wing of the aircraft before dropping it at altitude for onward travel into space.

Glenn Caplin, Chief Executive of the Cornwall & Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership, which is investing £500,000 in Spaceport Cornwall, said: “This is a huge vote of confidence in Virgin Orbit’s capabilities and means we could see the launch of small satellites from Newquay to support the RAF, in addition to the commercial satellite launches that Virgin Orbit expect to attract. This announcement should accelerate Virgin Orbit’s plans to set up their European hub in Cornwall.”

Geoff Brown, Cabinet Member for Transport at Cornwall Council, said: “This is very significant because it means that Virgin Orbit will have the UK Government as one of its first paying customers for the horizontal launch of satellites into space. And given that Cornwall has been chosen as its only location in the UK, there is every possibility that Spaceport Cornwall will be a base for this activity.”

Virgin Orbit plans to operate from a variety of launch sites, including Mojave Air and Space Port in California, Guam, Japan and Cornwall.

In June the UK Space Agency said it planned to invest more than £7 million in Spaceport Cornwall to give the UK domestic satellite launch capability for the first time. A further £12 million could come from Cornwall Council, subject to further approval later this year, and this investment would be recouped over time through launch fees.

Spaceport Cornwall could create 150 jobs and £200m for Cornwall’s economy in its first five years. It would enable the UK to compete for a share of the global market for launching small satellites, worth a potential £3.9 billion to 2030.

Because Virgin Orbit uses a conventional aircraft there is no need to extend the runway at Newquay, and satellite launches would not involve any vertical take-off of rockets from the airport. The increase in carbon emissions, which is projected to be modest from just a small number of launches per year, is currently being modelled by the University of Exeter. A full carbon offset programme and mitigation plan will be put in place.

Miles Carden, Spaceport Cornwall Director, said: “The RAF is partnering with Virgin Orbit because it requires a flexible launch system that can provide reactive satellite launches in a matter of days or even hours, should the need arise, rather than months or years from traditional procurement routes.”

Page last updated: 15:35, 19th July 2019
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