Virgin Orbit to conduct first mission from the UK with Start Me Up


Virgin Orbit will carry out the first satellite launch from the United Kingdom on Monday with the first LauncherOne mission out of Spaceport Cornwall. LauncherOne will be dropped from Virgin’s Cosmic Girl carrier aircraft, with release expected off the coast of Ireland during a 10-minute window that opens at 22:16 UTC.

Monday’s launch marks the first orbital mission to begin from UK soil, demonstrating the air-launched LauncherOne vehicle’s ability to fly from almost anywhere in the world. Although it is launching from the UK, the rocket is of US design and construction, and the launch has been procured under a contract between Virgin Orbit and the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

The payload that has been announced for Monday’s launch consists of nine small satellites — although with the involvement of the NRO and several other military organizations, additional classified payloads cannot be ruled out. The primary payload is Prometheus-2, a pair of CubeSats that will conduct a technology demonstration mission for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and allied governments. Other payloads include other missions for British government and private organizations, most in collaboration with international partners, as well as a Polish CubeSat and the first satellite for the Sultanate of Oman.

Continuing Virgin Orbit’s tradition of naming their missions after famous songs — founder Richard Branson’s first business having been Virgin Records — this launch has been named Start Me Up in honor of the 1981 song by the Rolling Stones. It is the sixth satellite launch to be conducted by Virgin Orbit and its LauncherOne rocket, with all five previous missions having been flown from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

While Monday’s launch will be the first to take place from Great Britain itself, the UK previously had its own satellite launch program which culminated in the successful launch of the Prospero satellite in October 1971 aboard a Black Arrow rocket. These launches, however, took place from Woomera, Australia.

LauncherOne will not lift off directly from British soil, as it is an air-launched rocket. Instead, its carrier plane — Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl — will take off from Spaceport Cornwall to carry the rocket to its release altitude. Cosmic Girl will then fly a racetrack pattern over the drop zone, off the southwest coast of the Republic of Ireland, before deploying LauncherOne from a pylon under its wing.

Cosmic Girl is a Boeing 747-41R which first flew in Sept. 2001. Delivered to Virgin Atlantic the same year with the registration G-VWOW, it spent the first 14 years of its career carrying passengers before being transferred to Virgin Galactic in 2015, and then on to Virgin Orbit in 2017 when the company split its orbital launch business away from its suborbital human spaceflight operations. LauncherOne’s pylon under the port wing uses a mounting point that was built into all 747s to allow for transportation of a spare engine.

Currently, Virgin Orbit uses Cosmic Girl as the launch platform for all LauncherOne missions; however, in May 2022, the company announced plans to procure a second aircraft which will allow it to increase the rate at which LauncherOne can fly.

Cosmic Girl, Virgin Orbit’s launch aircraft (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

Spaceport Cornwall, also known as Newquay Airport, is located near the town of Newquay, on the coast of England’s most south-westerly county, Cornwall. Built in the 1930s, the airfield came under Royal Air Force (RAF) use during the Second World War as RAF Trebelzue, later renamed RAF St Mawgan. From the 1950s until the 1990s, maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare units were based at the airfield. RAF search and rescue helicopter squadrons were also based there until 2008, and today the service still maintains a smaller, non-flying, presence at the airfield.

The airfield also hosts general aviation and commercial flights, with the latter serving domestic routes and European holiday destinations on a mostly seasonal basis. Commercial flying from the airfield began in the 1950s, with its first civilian terminal opening in 1962. The airfield has a single runway, 12/30, with a length of 2.7 kilometers (9,000 feet).

In Nov. 2019, the British Government announced funding to enable Virgin Orbit to conduct satellite launches from Newquay, which was selected from a shortlist that included other airfields in the UK — including Prestwick and Campbeltown in Scotland and Llanbedr in Wales.

Britain’s only satellite launch was made from Australia by a Black Arrow rocket in 1971 (Credit: ESA)

While this is the first launch Virgin Orbit has conducted from a base outside of the United States, it is not the first time that air-launched launch vehicles have demonstrated their ability to be forward-deployed to other countries. A Pegasus-XL rocket, then operated by Orbital Sciences Corporation (now part of Northrop Grumman), launched Spain’s Minisat-01 satellite in April 1997 with its launch aircraft flying from Gando Air Base on the island of Gran Canaria. Pegasus launches have also been conducted out of Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands when targeting near-equatorial orbits.

In preparation for the Start Me Up mission, Cosmic Girl departed her home base at the Mojave Air and Space Port on Oct. 9 for Fort Lauderdale in Florida, before crossing the Atlantic on Oct. 11 and touching down in Newquay at 18:26 British Summer Time (17:26 UTC). LauncherOne arrived a few days later aboard an RAF C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft. At the time, launch was slated for November, but the mission was subsequently delayed by testing and regulatory issues. On Dec. 22, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) awarded Virgin Orbit its launch license to carry out the mission — marking the first time the CAA has ever licensed a satellite launch.

LauncherOne was fueled ahead of launch day, however oxidizer and gas loading will be conducted shortly before the carrier aircraft departs Spaceport Cornwall in a process beginning about three and a quarter hours before takeoff. Cosmic Girl is expected to take off during a one-hour window between 21:45 and 22:45 before heading northwest towards the launch area. Upon reaching the drop zone, Cosmic Girl will begin flying an oval racetrack pattern at deployment altitude — during a launch rehearsal in December, an altitude of 30,000 feet (9.14 km) was used.

LauncherOne arrives at Spaceport Cornwall in October (credit: Spaceport Cornwall)

In Virgin Orbit’s terminology, time T0 is the point in the countdown at which Cosmic Girl takes off, and time D0 is the time that LauncherOne is released from the carrier aircraft.

The launch window itself is 10 minutes long, beginning at 22:16 UTC. If all systems check out, as Cosmic Girl passes through the drop zone in a south-south-easterly direction, she will pull up and release LauncherOne. A few seconds after release, the NewtonThree engine that powers LauncherOne’s first stage will ignite, and the vehicle will begin its climb towards orbit. Cosmic Girl will then return to Spaceport Cornwall.

Not including the launch aircraft, LauncherOne is a two-stage rocket with both stages burning RP-1 kerosene propellant, oxidized by liquid oxygen. The first stage will burn for around three minutes before reaching main engine cutoff (MECO), at which point it will shut down. Stage separation will occur three seconds after MECO. The second stage’s NewtonFour engine will ignite four seconds after separation to begin the first of two burns.

The payload fairing will separate from the nose of LauncherOne about 20-30 seconds after second stage ignition. The first burn will last about five and a half minutes, ending with second stage engine cutoff 1 (SECO-1). With this complete, the second stage will enter a coast phase, performing a barbecue roll to help manage thermal conditions.

Around the D+47 minute mark in the mission, the second stage will begin to reorient itself to make its second burn. This burn will commence about six and a quarter minutes later, with the burn lasting a few seconds to circularize the orbit. Payload deployments are expected to begin about a minute after the end of the second burn.

Cosmic Girl releases LauncherOne, seen during a 2019 drop test (Credit: Credit: Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson)

The Prometheus-2A and 2B satellites, which make up the primary payload for Start Me Up, are a pair of six-unit (6U) CubeSats which will be operated by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL). They were constructed by In-Space Missions Ltd in partnership with Airbus Defence and Space and are part of a joint venture between allied government agencies including the UK and the United States to demonstrate technologies for future military space missions including the UK’s Minerva program.

Prometheus-2A carries a hyperspectral imaging system, while Prometheus-2B carries a pair of cameras: one with a wide-angle lens for Earth imaging and another that will test space situational awareness by monitoring Prometheus-2A. The Prometheus-2B satellite also carries a laser range finder, with 2A equipped with a detector, and both satellites carry GPS receivers.

IOD-3, also known as IOD-AMBER, is another 6U CubeSat which is being carried for the Satellite Applications Catapult, an organization set up to promote space research and development. Built by Clyde Space, the satellite will test a maritime signals intelligence (SIGINT) platform, FlyingFish, in orbit for Horizon Technologies. It will collect radio frequency (RF) signals from ships, including Automatic Identification System (AIS) transmissions, radar emissions and l-band communications used by satellite phones, to attempt to locate the vessels. It will serve as a precursor to a planned constellation of satellites.

The Coordinated Ionospheric Reconstruction CubeSat Experiment (CIRCE) will use a pair of 6U CubeSats to study the Earth’s ionosphere. A joint program between DSTL and the US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), the satellites will monitor chemistry and composition, radiation, ultraviolet emissions, and signal propagation to help build a better understanding of the effects of the ionosphere and space weather on military capabilities, such as communications and space situational awareness.

RHEA Group’s Dover Pathfinder satellite is a 3U CubeSat co-sponsored by the European Space Agency’s Navigation Innovation and Support Programme (NAVISP). It carries a satellite navigation receiver and will be used to study how next-generation navigation systems can be made more resilient. The satellite is named after the Strait of Dover, the narrowest part of the English Channel, where historical navigation and timekeeping research has been conducted.

Render of the Prometheus-2A and 2B satellites in orbit (Credit: DSTL)

The ForgeStar-0 satellite, being carried for Cardiff-based aerospace company Space Forge, is a pathfinder for a modular satellite platform which its operators plan to use to conduct in-space manufacturing in the future. The satellite carries a laser retroreflector to help track the decay of its orbit and will also test radiation shielding. A prototype satellite, it is built to the same 3U CubeSat standard as Dover Pathfinder.

STORK 6 and AMAN are also 3U CubeSats with Earth observation missions, and both were built by Polish company SatRevolution (SatRev). STORK 6 is the latest in a series of Earth observation satellites being deployed as part of SatRev’s Earth-imaging constellation. AMAN was developed by SatRev on behalf of Omani company ETCO and will be the first satellite operated by the Sultanate of Oman. Both satellites carry SatRev’s Vision-300 camera system, which can produce images of the Earth at resolutions of up to five meters.

All of the satellites were built to the CubeSat set of standards, which are based around units of size measuring 10 by 10 by 10 centimeters. A three-unit CubeSat measures 30 cm in length and 10 cm along both other axes. A typical 6U satellite — a definition that includes all of the 6U satellites aboard Monday’s launch — measures 30 by 20 by 10 cm.

The Start Me Up mission is appropriately named, as Monday’s launch begins what could be a momentous year for the space industry in the United Kingdom. Another LauncherOne mission from Cornwall is possible later in the year — although Virgin Orbit are not currently sure about the timing of this — and inaugural launches from two vertical-launch sites in Scotland could also take place in 2023.

ABL Space Systems plan to launch their RS1 rocket from SaxaVord Spaceport in the Shetland Islands once they have completed a pair of demonstration flights from Kodiak Island, Alaska. Coincidentally, RS1’s maiden flight is also scheduled for liftoff on Monday, less than an hour before LauncherOne’s mission begins.

Orbex’s Prime is due to fly from Scotland later this year (Credit: Mack Crawford for NSF/L2)

Two British companies, Orbex and Skyrora, are in the process of developing their own rockets. Orbex’s Prime rocket will fly from Space Hub Sutherland, currently under construction on the A’ Mhòine peninsula on the north coast of Scotland, while Skyrora-XL will launch from SaxaVord. Both vehicles are currently slated to make maiden flights this year, and it is hoped that one of these vehicles will become the first British-developed rocket to launch a satellite since Black Arrow in 1971.

With Monday’s launch demonstrating LauncherOne’s ability to fly from launch sites away from its home base, the mission also opens the door to it carrying out missions elsewhere in the world. Virgin Orbit has already reached agreements with Australia and Japan to bring its launch capabilities to these countries and has plans to expand this around the planet.

(Lead image: Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne in flight during a captive-carry test flight in 2020. Credit: Virgin Orbit)

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