Editor's update for 4:34 pm ET: Virgin Orbit's "Start Me Up" launch webcast is live in the window above and also available on YouTube (opens in new tab). New takeoff time for its Cosmic Girl carrier plane is targeted for 5:01 p.m. EST (2201 GMT). Today's launch window runs through 6 p.m. EST (2300 GMT).
NEWQUAY, U.K. — A giant leap for the U.K. space sector is set to take place tonight, Monday (Jan. 9), as Virgin Orbit readies for its first-ever launch from Britain, and from Europe.
The launch, which could still be hampered by bad weather or technical glitches, will be Virgin Orbit's first from a location other than the company's U.S. homebase in California's Mojave Desert. It will also be the first-ever orbital launch from the U.K., although the country previously launched a satellite into orbit atop a homegrown rocket from Australia in the early 1970s. The new mission, called "Start Me Up," after a song by legendary British band the Rolling Stones, will see Virgin Orbit's converted Boeing 747-400 airplane Cosmic Girl take off from an airport in Newquay, a popular tourist town on the picturesque Atlantic Coast of the Cornwall region in southwest England.
If all goes to plan, Cosmic Girl, with Virgin Orbit's two-stage Launcher One rocket tucked beneath its wing, will take off from the the Newquay Airport, now dubbed Spaceport Cornwall, between 4:40 and 6 p.m. EST (2140 and 2300 GMT) tonight. Then, it will ascend to an altitude of 35,000 feet (10.6 kilometers) above the Atlantic Ocean before releasing the rocket about an hour into the flight. Launcher One will perform one orbital burn with each of its two stages before releasing its cargo of nine small satellites. You can watch the launch on YouTube (opens in new tab) in the window above beginning at 4 p.m. EST (2100 GMT), courtesy of Virgin Orbit, or directly at the company's YouTube (opens in new tab).
"We'll do a three minute burn on the first stage, followed by about six minutes of second-stage burn," Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit CEO said during a pre-launch news conference on Sunday (Jan. 8). "We'll coast around Antarctica, come up around near Australia. And then we'll watch the final burn and the payloads deploy."
The night-time launch slot, which may be disappointing for viewers, was selected because of the orbital requirements of the clients' satellites, Hart added.
The rocket, which arrived in the U.K. in October, completed its wet dress rehearsal (a complete rundown of the pre-launch procedure) last week. Virgin Orbit's team was ready to proceed with fuelling later on Sunday, according to Hart.
For Spaceport Cornwall, which received its spaceport license from the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority in November, the Start Me Up mission is what the region, as well as an entire country, hope to be a beginning of a long and fruitful cooperation.
"The space industry is worth around £6.5 billion [$7.7 billion] annually for the U.K. economy," Ian Annett, deputy CEO of the U.K. Space Agency, which co-funded the development of Spaceport Cornwall, said during the news conference.
"As a country, we are absolutely fantastic at designing and building satellites: We build more satellites than anywhere else outside of the U.S.," he said. "So it helps to develop an end-to-end capability so that we can do everything."
Spaceport Cornwall is one of seven locations across the U.K. that was awarded funding by the U.K. Space Agency in 2017 to develop spaceport sites fit for launching small satellites into low Earth orbit. Other launch facilities are under construction in Sutherland, in the north of Scotland, and on the Shetland Islands off the Scottish coast, both of which are intended to serve traditional, vertical rocket launches.
Mellisa Thorpe, the CEO of Spaceport Cornwall, said it cost less than £20 million ($24 million) to convert the tiny Newquay airport into a space-ready site.
"The foundations were already here," Thorpe said. "We have one of the longest runways in the U.K., access over the sea and a team that had the will to turn that into a spaceport."
She said that work has been done on strengthening taxiways and reinforcing turning pads to allow Cosmic Girl to maneuver more efficiently. The airport also built a brand new Space Systems Integration Facility where customer satellites can be safely integrated into a rocket fairing.
During its U.K. debut, Virgin Orbit will launch nine payloads, including an in-orbit manufacturing experiment by U.K. company Space Forge, a set of cubesats from the U.K. Defence Science and Technology Laboratory designed to study the ionosphere (the upper region of the Earth's atmosphere where space weather occurs), and an innovative navigation satellite co-funded by the European Space Agency.
The U.K. weather forecaster Met Office predicts reasonable weather in Newquay throughout Monday, with only a 10% chance of rain throughout the day. In case of a last-minute cancellation, the next launch attempt will take place on Friday (Jan. 13), with additional windows opened for Sunday (Jan. 15), Jan. 18, Jan. 19 and Jan. 20.
Virgin Orbit is a sister company of space tourism-focused Virgin Galactic, with both companies owned by British billionaire Sir Richard Branson, but no plans to bring space tourism to Cornwall are currently in place, according to Thorpe.