The LauncherOne rocket is dropped from Cosmic Girl in flight

Virgin Orbit has been carrying out testing on the LauncherOne rocket, such as this 2019 drop test, ahead of commercial flights. Image © Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson.

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First rocket to attempt orbit from UK set to blast off in Cornwall

The first ever orbital space launch from the UK could take place later today.

Virgin Orbit is hoping to launch a rocket carrying a payload of satellites into space from Spaceport Cornwall at Newquay's airport.

Update: Unfortunately, the rocket suffered an anomaly during launch and did not reach its final orbit. Investigations will now take place to determine the cause of the failure.

Final preparations are taking place for a rocket launch which offers new opportunities for British space science.

A modified 747 jumbo jet is set to take off from Spaceport Cornwall later this evening and fly out over the Atlantic where it will attempt to launch a rocket into space.

If successful, a number of civilian and military satellites with missions including Earth observation, navigation and in-space manufacturing will be launched into orbit.

Melissa Thorpe, the Head of Spaceport Cornwall, says, 'This is a phenomenal moment with incredible international collaboration. Virgin Orbit, the UK Space Agency and all of our partners are breaking new ground to transform access to space across the world from right here in Cornwall. 

'My team at Spaceport Cornwall have worked so hard to get this far and we wish everyone the best of luck as the launch window opens. We are ready.'

Ian Annett, the Deputy CEO at the UK Space Agency, adds, 'We are entering a new era for space in the UK with the first ever satellite launch from UK soil and from Europe. This is a significant landmark for the nation, the UK Space Agency and for all those who have worked so hard over many years to make our ambitions to create a commercial space launch capability a reality.'

While the mission is not the first satellite from the UK to enter orbit, it is the first to take off from British soil. The first satellite operated by the UK, Ariel 1, was launched on a US rocket from Cape Canaveral in 1962, while a homegrown rocket was used to launch the Prospero satellite from Woomera, Australia in 1971.

The LauncherOne rocket is attached to Cosmic Girl's wing

For its launch, the LauncherOne rocked will be carried under the wing of a 747 jumbo jet called Cosmic Girl. Image © Virgin Orbit.

Rocket launches at Spaceport Cornwall

Plans to launch rockets from Cornwall were first mooted in 2019, when the UK government and the county council announced that they were prepared to invest up to £20 million in Virgin Orbit's plans to open Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay.

Unlike most sites, Spaceport Cornwall is a horizontal, rather than vertical, rocket launching facility. By launching rockets using planes, instead of under their own power, horizontal launching facilities don't need to be as big as vertical ones, but are limited in the size of rockets they can launch.

Virgin Orbit plans to use a 747 named Cosmic Girl for its launches. This jumbo jet has been stripped of all unnecessary fittings to save enough weight to carry the LauncherOne rocket under its left wing. 

During launches, the rocket is flown out into the Atlantic, south of Ireland, where it is carried to an altitude of around 11,000 metres. When ready to launch, the plane will pull up before dropping the rocket, which ignites four seconds later

LauncherOne's first stage will accelerate the rocket to around 360 metres per second, about the same as a speeding bullet. It then drops away, with a second stage pushing the rocket into orbit where the satellites are released.

The method of launching was refined using tests over the Pacific Ocean in the USA, with four previous launches carrying 33 satellites into space. Seven satellites in total will be launched as part of the inaugural 'Start Me Up' mission from Spaceport Cornwall after Virgin Orbit was awarded its licenses by the UK Space Agency in December.

Cosmic Girl, with LauncherOne attached, flies through the clouds

Launching rockets releases carbon dioxide into the upper atmosphere. Image © Virgin Orbit.

How green are Virgin Orbit's rocket launches?

While satellites are an important tool for Earth monitoring, their launches contribute to climate change

Like many other space organisations, Virgin Orbit uses a refined form of kerosene known as RP-1 to power its rockets. As with all fossil fuels, burning RP-1 will release carbon dioxide, which enters the atmosphere and adds to global warming.

It is estimated that the equivalent of 22 tonnes of carbon dioxide, or the annual emissions of around five cars, will be released during each launch of LauncherOne in addition to the estimated 109 tonnes released by Cosmic Girl during the flight.

As the rockets are currently manufactured in Long Beach, USA, the carbon emissions of each launch also include those from shipping LauncherOne to the UK, which adds another 700 or so tonnes of carbon dioxide to the overall number.

In total, a report from the University of Exeter estimates that the first launch will release 1,190 tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is about the same weight as a fully grown giant sequoia, one of the largest trees on Earth. 

When Spaceport Cornwall moves to multiple launches a year, emissions from the Virgin Orbit's missions will produce the equivalent of around 1,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide annually. However, the impacts can be even higher if radiative forcing is considered.

This term represents additional factors that affect how much the Earth warms, such as aerosol particles which can absorb additional heat. While the impacts can be hard to measure, the report estimates that two launches a year will represent the equivalent of 2,574 tonnes of carbon dioxide. 

Spaceport Cornwall says that it is committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2030 through by purchasing carbon credits from the planting of UK woodland to offset its emissions. It has also pledged to identify the location for a kelp forest off the Cornish coast which can sequester carbon.

In the longer term, the rockets launched at Spaceport Cornwall could be powered by biofuels, as well as potentially being manufactured on site. 

The firm has also committed to delivering a net gain of biodiversity at its site, and conduct research into how its rockets can be made reusable and their debris collected.