UK taps Virgin Orbit to launch first satellites from its own soil this summer

Tech

The United Kingdom has a small but growing space industry, with the number of space-related organizations increasing by an average of 21 percent each year since 2012, but there is one key component it’s lacking — launches. There have been no space launches from U.K. soil, but that’s about to change.

The U.K. has announced Prometheus-2, a Ministry of Defence mission that will see the launch of two cubesats from Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay this summer. The satellites will test GPS and imaging instruments that will allow “for a more collaborative and connected space communication system with our allies,” according to the press release. Those allies include the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, with whom the U.K. Ministry of Defence is partnering on the mission.

The Ministry of Defence has selected Virgin Orbit, part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and a sister company to space tourism operator Virgin Galactic, as its launch system for the Prometheus-2 mission. This will mark the first time the Long Beach–based space company has launched overseas — it has previously launched three successful orbital missions from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

Virgin Orbit offers a horizontal launch system — that is, it launches its LauncherOne rocket mid-air from the belly of a modified Boeing 747 aircraft named Cosmic Girl. (Yes, that technically means the launch will be from U.K. airspace rather than U.K. soil, but hey — at the least the plane still takes off from the ground.)

The U.K. government hopes that Prometheus-2 will herald a new space era for the country. “These satellites showcase the U.K.’s strengths in designing and building satellites,” Ian Annett, Deputy CEO at the U.K. Space Agency, said in the press release. “Being able to launch from the U.K. and across Europe for the first time will boost our satellite industry further, create high skilled jobs across the country, and deliver a key ambition of the National Space Strategy.”

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