The UK is gearing up to host its first ever rocket launch – but it’s quickly becoming a race against time to take off this side of Christmas.
The fabulously named Cosmic Girl is due to take off from Cornwall, with rehearsals having been given the green light following the granting of the UK’s very first spaceport licence in November.
While the precise details have been shrouded in secrecy since then, Virgin Orbit and Spaceport Cornwall had been targeting a date as soon as the week of 12 December.
But after it was revealed there are technical issues to be resolved, the date was reset for “the coming weeks”.
So, will Cosmic Girl beat Santa himself when it comes to flying over the UK this year?
As the clock ticks down, here is everything you need to know as the UK gets involved in the space race.
How will the launch work?
The key thing to realise about this launch is that it’s not going to remind you of a classic NASA spectacle, with some huge spacecraft launching vertically into the atmosphere.
Cosmic Girl may be named like a knock-off Star Wars ship, but it is in fact an old Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747.
The seats were ripped out, and the upper deck was converted into a control centre for launch engineers ahead of its arrival on the southwest coast from Virgin Orbit’s factory in California.
Under its left wing is LauncherOne, a 21m (69ft) rocket, which will be released at 35,000ft over the Atlantic Ocean before accelerating to 8,000mph on its mission to deploy seven satellites into orbit.
So when it comes to the view from Spaceport Cornwall, it will not look dissimilar to any other plane taking off when it jets off under the cover of night.
Cosmic Girl, operated by Virgin Orbit, has plenty of experience in that regard – in its past life it carried more than 2.5 million passengers on almost 8,300 flights.
Why are we not getting a vertical launch?
As impressive and inspiring as those familiar Cape Canaveral operations are, they are often beset by delays.
The so-called horizontal launch that Cosmic Girl will perform is far less weather-dependent.
It also does not require as much ground infrastructure, so – to put it simply – there’s less that could go wrong in comparison to a vertical launch.
But that’s not to say the UK might not get a vertical launch of its own one day, like the US or Russia, as a traditional launch pad is due to come online in Scotland next year.
Of course, the unfortunate irony in this instance is that Cosmic Girl’s launch has been delayed anyway.
What do we know about the delay?
Virgin Orbit said “additional technical work” was needed to “establish system health and readiness”.
However, the company also appeared to point the finger at the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority, saying that licences for the launch and the satellites in the payload were “still outstanding” as of 8 December.
But Tim Johnson, the regulator’s director for space regulation, insisted: “The UK space regulation process is not a barrier to a UK space launch.”
The technical issues cited by Virgin Orbit “in no way relate to the timing of when a licence will be issued”, he said.
Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, said she remained “optimistic” about the launch, but did not offer an updated timescale.
Virgin Orbit said it was “prudent to retarget launch for the coming weeks” to ensure the mission was a success.
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The first objective seems to have been to give it a cool name: Start Me Up.
The team gave all they got over the course of eight years to reach this stage, with the satellites – which have also predominantly been built in the UK – having now been loaded into LauncherOne at the spaceport.
Among them are a prototype orbiting factory for making high-value alloys and semiconductors, and one to join a constellation of satellites monitoring illegal fishing, smuggling, trafficking, piracy and terrorism.
It forms part of the government’s National Space Strategy, which set out how the UK will become the first country in Europe to launch satellites into orbit in 2022.
Science minister Nusrat Ghani said: “With 47,000 jobs across the UK, our growing space industry is a vital part of the economy and has an important role to play in catalysing investment, generating growth and prosperity.”
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What could this mean for the UK’s future in space?
Make no mistake, this is a huge moment for the UK’s space programme.
While the likes of Helen Sharman, who became the first Briton in space in 1989, and Tim Peake, who performed a historic spacewalk 27 years later, have flown the flag for the UK among the stars, never before has a rocket been launched into space from the UK.
The UK has only ever completed one orbital launch, the Black Arrow in 1971, and that actually took off in Australia.
Ian Annett, deputy chief executive at the UK Space Agency, said the Cornwall launch would be an “iconic moment”.
“This will catalyse investment, bring new jobs to communities and organisations right across the UK, as well as inspiring the next generation of space scientists and engineers,” he added.
With the country facing uncertain times to say the least down on the ground, the excitement of the final frontier may prove the perfect distraction.