Spaceport Cornwall is an operational spaceport located in the region of Cornwall, southwest England.
Spaceport Cornwall provides a take-off point for air-launch providers such as Virgin Orbit and potentially a landing site for spaceplanes and does not offer (opens in new tab) vertical launch services. Work began on Spaceport Cornwall in 2014 (opens in new tab). In November 2022 (opens in new tab), it became the first facility in the United Kingdom ever to be granted a spaceport license.
The spaceport is part of Cornwall Airport Newquay, a former Royal Air Force military airport that became a civil airport in 2008 (opens in new tab). As such, the relatively small airport is home to a large runway that is just over 9,000 ft (opens in new tab) long and capable of accommodating military aircraft and large passenger airliners.
Related: Virgin Orbit's first UK launch from Spaceport Cornwall (photos)
Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, told Space.com in January 2023 that the spaceport expected to employ 150 staff "in direct relation to launch or space" and a total of 240 in the supply chain.
Why was Cornwall selected for a spaceport?
There are several reasons why Newquay Airport Cornwall was selected as a spaceport location, one of which is the aforementioned large runway. Access to the Atlantic Ocean via the nearby Cornish coast and a lack of residential development are also positive factors.
Matthew Archer, Commercial Space Director of the UK Space Agency, told Space.com at the Start Me Up launch in January that even though air launches take place at tens of thousands of feet above the ground, they cannot be carried out in populated areas. "That's why you don't see every airport trying to become a spaceport," he said. "Here, you've got one of the longest runways in the UK at about 10,000 feet — most others aren't that length. So your actual choice, once you move away from military airports, is relatively narrow. That's why Cornwall is such a great location."(opens in new tab)
The process of building a spaceport within Newquay Airport Cornwall largely involved making use of existing facilities, though two new facilities (opens in new tab) were constructed: the Space Systems Integration Facility and the Space System Operations Facility. Both will be used by businesses for purposes such as satellite manufacturing and environmental intelligence.
What did it take to establish Spaceport Cornwall?
Melissa Thorpe: Facilities-wise, it didn't take much. We could have launched from day one without really having to do anything. But what we did was future-proof the site and take advantage of the opportunities of launch to create a more sustainable business model by looking at building facilities that can be used by Virgin, but when Virgin are not here can also be used by other businesses as well. So we did things like build our satellite integration facility, which Virgin uses to integrate all the payloads, but in the future we have other people coming in to use it which is great from a revenue generation point of view."
Melissa Thorpe is the head of Spaceport Cornwall, the UK's first spaceport.
Setting up the spaceport also involved regulatory challenges. The UK's Civil Aviation Authority, the UK's space regulator, granted Spaceport Cornwall its UK spaceport license on November 16, 2022, declaring that the spaceport "met appropriate safety, security, environment and other aspects".
"From a regulatory perspective, it's the first time we've ever launched in the UK," said Thorpe. "We're the first licensed spaceport and we are kind of the guinea pig for that process, so we all were learning as we went along."
Spaceport Cornwall describes (opens in new tab) its ongoing development cost as just over £20 million ($24.7 million).
Spaceport Cornwall missions(opens in new tab)
The first launch from the facility took place on January 9, 2023, when Virgin Orbit attempted its sixth mission, Start Me Up, which was intended to be the first orbital space launch from the UK. The launch was initially successful but the mission ultimately failed due to Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket ending its second-stage burn prematurely, preventing it from reaching orbit. Archer said the launch project "succeeded in creating a horizontal launch capability at Spaceport Cornwall'' regardless.
Related: Failed Virgin Orbit launch leaves open opportunity for UK as a space 'underdog'
Shortly after the mission, Virgin Orbit said in a statement (opens in new tab) it was anticipating a return to Spaceport Cornwall for additional launches again, possibly before the end of the year.
Other space companies are also expected to use Spaceport Cornwall in the near term. This includes US-based Sierra Space, which is developing a reusable spaceplane capable of carrying crew and cargo to and from low Earth orbit and the International Space Station. "We have a memorandum of understanding with Sierra Space to act as a landing site for their future missions," Thorpe told Space.com. "We have another operator which we haven't announced yet but are hoping to in the next few months."
Missions that launch from Spaceport Cornwall in the near term will likely be with the purpose of deploying small satellites into Earth orbit. As of January 2023, there were no plans (opens in new tab) for Spaceport Cornwall to launch any space tourism missions. Spaceport Cornwall is expected to host launches twice a year until at least 2028 and is limited to 12 launches per year (opens in new tab) by the regional branch of government, Cornwall Council.
Facts about Cornwall and its historic space links
Cornwall has a couple of historic links to space. It was the birthplace of the British mathematician and astronomer John Couch Adams (1819 - 1892), who is known for being one of the astronomers who independently predicted the existence of the planet Neptune, based on observed irregularities in the orbit of Uranus.
It is also home to the Goonhilly Earth Station, a vast radio communications hub used for relaying signals from satellites and the world's first (opens in new tab) privately-owned deep-space communications network.
Historically the station has been at the forefront of space communications technology. In 1962 (opens in new tab), Goonhilly's Aerial-1 dish received the first transatlantic TV signal from the earliest communications satellite Telstar. In 1969, the station was used to broadcast the Apollo 11 moon landing to a global audience of around 600 million people.
Goonhilly Earth Station is still in use today and recently tracked the path of NASA's Artemis 1 moon rocket in November 2022 — providing the UK's only tracking support for the mission. It is part of the Spaceport Cornwall consortium.
Outside of space activities, Cornwall is known as one of the six Celtic nations in Europe. It is one of the UK's most popular tourist hotspots owing to its culture, landscape, mild climate, and extensive coastlines. It is also one of the most popular regions in the country for surfing. Culinarily, Cornwall is known for the Cornish pasty and, in a return to the theme of space, stargazy pie — a unique dish that features the heads of whole pilchards protruding upwards from a pastry crust, giving the impression that the fish are looking towards the stars.
To learn more about Spaceport Cornwall's operations visit the spaceport's official website (opens in new tab). You can also learn about Cornwall Airport Newquay (opens in new tab), where Spaceport Cornwall is based, here. And to find out more about the UK's space operations (opens in new tab), visit the official government site of the UK Space Agency.
Spaceport Cornwall receives first-ever UK spaceport licence, CAA.co.uk [Accessed 1/26/23] [https://www.caa.co.uk/news/spaceport-cornwall-receives-first-ever-uk-spaceport-licence/ (opens in new tab)]
EGHQ — Cornwall Newquay, acukwik.com [Accessed 1/26/23] [https://acukwik.com/Airport-Info/EGHQ (opens in new tab)]
John Couch Adams, NASA.gov [Accessed 1/26/23] [https://starchild.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/StarChild/whos_who_level2/adams.html (opens in new tab)]
Virgin Orbit SEC form 8-K, January 12, 2023 [8-K - 01/12/2023 - Virgin Orbit Holdings, Inc.]
Frequently Asked Questions, SpaceportCornwall.com [Accessed 1/26/23] [https://spaceportcornwall.com/faqs/ (opens in new tab)]
Becoming the UK's first Licensed Spaceport: the next step on the Road to Net Zero, SpaceportCornwall.com [Accessed 1/26/23] [https://spaceportcornwall.com/becoming-the-uks-first-licensed-spaceport-the-next-step-on-the-road-to-net-zero/ (opens in new tab)]