Virgin Orbit gets UK Government funding for Spaceport Cornwall Operations

The UK Space Agency confirmed last week that it will award £7.35 million to Virgin Orbit UK Limited, the UK branch of US launch operator Virgin Orbit, to enable horizontal launch of small satellites from Spaceport Cornwall at Newquay Airport.

‘Horizontal launching’ means taking a rocket to high altitude by plane and launching it into space. ‘Vertical launching’ is the traditional method – launching a rocket from the ground.

This funding will help secure the first satellite launch from Spaceport Cornwall, which Virgin Orbit are planning for the early 2020s, pending regulatory approvals.

Science Minister, Chris Skidmore says: “We want the UK to be the first country in Europe to give its small satellite manufacturers a clear route from the factory to the spaceport. That’s why it’s so important that we are developing new infrastructure to allow aircraft to take off and deploy satellites, a key capability that the UK currently lacks.”

Access to space is a vital tool for global efforts to tackle climate change, as satellites give the science community key measurements of temperature, sea levels and ice cover, while improving management of natural resources.

Unfortunately launching stuff into space also has an effect on the upper atmosphere. However the government says that launch activities must not unduly affect the environment and cites independent research carried out by the University of Exeter demonstrating that Spaceport Cornwall is not expected to have a significant impact on Cornwall’s overall greenhouse gas emissions and efforts to combat climate change.

The UK Space Agency originally announced its intention to award funding to Spaceport Cornwall and Virgin Orbit in June, subject to approval, as part of a wider £20 million funding package from Cornwall Council and the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership. Last week’s announcement by the UK Space Agency follows the completion of the necessary ‘due diligence’ and conclusion of the grant agreement with Virgin Orbit UK Limited. Cornwall Council are expected to confirm whether they will award £10 million capital funding to the project at a council meeting later this month.

This new funding will complement the recent award of £300,000 from the UK Space Agency’s targeted development fund to further support Cornwall’s ambition to be a centre for future flight technologies. Spaceport Cornwall estimates a horizontal launch spaceport at Newquay Airport could create 150 immediate jobs, with additional opportunities for local businesses in directly supporting the site.

Newquay is one of a number of potential sites for spaceports around the UK that have now been whittled down to three – Newquay (Horizontal), Prestwick (Horizontal) and Sutherland (Vertical).

Fancy a 50-min space flight to Australia from Newquay? Heathrow eat your heart out!
Minister for the Future of Transport, George Freeman says: “The UK is a world leader in small satellite technology and we are committed to supporting the UK as a world leader in space technology, and establishing a network of spaceports that enables us to operate regular flights is key to that. To help grow the UK’s spaceflight capabilities, Government is funding a range of industry-led projects including £31.5 million to help establish launch services from a new vertical launch spaceport in Sutherland, Scotland.”

The point about the horizontal spaceports at Newquay & Prestwick is that they could also become spaceports for horizontal passenger flights in the future. Virgin Galactica gets closer every day to launching space experience flights for passengers, but as I pointed out a decade ago, just because a passenger space flight takes off from one spaceport, it doesn’t mean that it has to return there. Fancy a 50-min space flight to Australia from Newquay? Heathrow eat your heart out!

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