UK’s First Spaceport Takes Off with Launch of Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl
Newquay, Cornwall – The UK’s first functioning spaceport is now open and ready for business in the form of Spaceport Cornwall. This exciting new development is part of a wider cluster of space technology being created in the UK, with the global value of the space economy estimated at 360 billion dollars per year. The UK alone generates 16.5 billion pounds annually from this industry.
Previously, Newquay Airport was primarily used for small passenger and private aircraft. However, it has now been transformed into Spaceport Cornwall, a hub for private companies to take advantage of its runway, which is one of the longest in Britain.
The runway is ideal for an innovative method of satellite deployment via a rocket known as Launcher One, developed by the company Virgin Orbit.
The method of satellite deployment is like no other, using a converted 747 aircraft known as Cosmic Girl. The aircraft carries a rocket underneath its wing, which is loaded with nine micro satellites.
The aircraft takes off from Spaceport Cornwall and flies out over the Atlantic, ascending to an altitude of 35,000 feet. At this point, the rocket detaches and blasts off to the edge of space to deliver its payload.
Cosmic Girl was once a Virgin Atlantic airliner, but it has been specially modified to launch rockets. The cabin, which would have once been filled with passenger seats, galleys and bulkheads, has been stripped down to save weight, which is crucial for launching rockets.
Squadron leader Matthew “Stannie” Stannard, on loan from the Royal Air Force to Virgin Orbit, is ready to take us through a mission and explain how it works. “We’re going to get airborne from the runway behind us and head out to what’s called a racetrack.
That’s the point we’re going to drop the rocket. That phase is called captive carry. We’re really just looking after the rocket during that and making sure it’s healthy using the launch engineers in the back and mission control on the ground,” Stannie explains.
We commence a pull-up, it’s about a 2G, so if you’re a passenger on this airplane, you feel yourself being pushed down just slightly in the seat, and we go to about 35 degrees nose up. And what we’re doing there is trying to transfer energy from the airplane to the rocket. By us going to that, the moment the rocket comes off, it’s already heading where it wants to. It’s not wasting any fuel. When we get to about 35 degrees nose up, we go to the right speed, and then the pro-pilot we’ll press the button to release the rocket. At that point, the aeroplanes are all the way to the right-hand side, and we’re gonna watch the rocket exit post.
One of the key benefits of this system is its portability. Cosmic Girl, the rocket, and a few skids with equipment can be moved anywhere, allowing for space launches from any airport that can handle a 747. This is a major advantage for the growing space economy in the UK, as the country has been one of the leaders in small satellites, which is the direction the satellite market is moving towards.
Critics may argue that there are many problems on Earth that need to be addressed, and that the focus should not be on space. However, the low Earth orbit economy is definitely growing, with 1,700 small satellites launched into low Earth orbit last year alone. The role of space technology in addressing major global issues such as climate change cannot be underestimated.