Satellites are being prepared for the UK’s first orbital launch

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

Inside these containers are the nine satellites that will become the first payloads to be launched into orbit from the UK.

They will board a rocket operated by British businessman Sir Richard Branson’s company Virgin Orbit.

The expedition, which is likely to take place sometime in the coming weeks, will start from Cornwall.

It will see a rebuilt Virgin Atlantic jumbo transport the rocket and its passengers over the Atlantic to a designated launch zone just south of Ireland.

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

Map

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

Internationally renowned for building satellites of all sizes, the country’s space industry has always had to send its products to foreign spaceports to get them into orbit.

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

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

The first launch in Cornwall will support a range of applications, both civil and defence.

A number of these nine satellites will collect information, such as listening to radio transmissions coming from ships.

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

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

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

Rocket

Rocket

All satellites are what are called cubes. They are not much bigger than a toaster. The miniaturization of electronics now enables engineers to pack a lot of performance into very small volumes.

The satellites are held atop the rocket in hubs. These are the frames you see in the image at the top of this page.

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

Exactly when the shipment will happen is a little uncertain right now.

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

The CAA estimated at the start of the 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 issued a report saying the time taken to issue licenses was “disappointing”, given that everyone had been led to believe a launch was likely in September.

The CAA will not comment on individual permits, but emphasizes the detail and rigor required to produce the many thousands of pages that support an application.

The authority uses what it believes is a streamlined process, what it calls a “results-focused regime.” This means setting the general standards expected in terms of design and safety, for example, but leaving it up to the licensee how they meet those requirements.

The CAA said it would eventually move to multi-launch permits, allowing operators to fly multiple missions with one approval.

Secular girl

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

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