Virgin Orbit delays historic launch from United Kingdom over licensing: reports

airplane in front of hanger that says "cornwall" on it
Spaceport Cornwall will wait to host a Virgin Orbit space mission. (Image credit: Spaceport Cornwall)

The first space launch from the United Kingdom is once again delayed.

Virgin Orbit, which planned to launch satellites in Cornwall aboard its modified 747 carrier aircraft as soon as Dec. 14, pushed back the date several weeks on Thursday (Dec. 8) due to licensing issues surrounding the launch, media reports indicated.

"With licenses still outstanding for the launch itself and for the satellites within the payload, additional technical work [is] needed to establish system health and readiness," CEO Dan Hart said in a statement cited by the BBC (opens in new tab). (Virgin Orbit has not commented yet on social media, but the licensing issue was confirmed by numerous other media outlets on Thursday.)

Citing a "very limited available launch window of only two days," Hart said the new launch window will be "for the coming weeks," leaving it unclear whether the company plans a 2022 launch after all. The holiday shutdown period in the United Kingdom may make it difficult to obtain a license for a late December launch.

In pictures: Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket for satellite missions

The U.K. civil space authority, however, noted that regulation "is not a barrier" to the launch and that Virgin Orbit's technical issues "in no way relate to the timing of when a license will be issued."

"Effective licensing forms an integral part of UK space activity," the statement added (opens in new tab). "Spaceport Cornwall's license already permits Virgin Orbit to undertake its testing program prior to launch. Our dedicated team has been working closely with all partners to assess applications and issue the remaining licenses within the timelines we set at the outset."

Spaceport Cornwall, a converted airport in the southwest of England, was itself granted a license on Nov. 16 after the airport showed it could comply with "statutory requirements on safety, security, environment and other aspects," the U.K. Space Agency said in a statement (opens in new tab) at the time.

Virgin Orbit's first U.K. mission, named "Start Me Up" after a song by the British band the Rolling Stones, will see several small satellites soar to space, including an on-orbit manufacturing experiment and a U.K. military satellite

The company's 747 airplane, called Cosmic Girl, will bring these satellites aloft using the LauncherOne rocket. The booster flies under the wing of Cosmic Girl before being released in the upper atmosphere, at which point the two-stage LauncherOne will ignite and carry the eight satellites into space.

It's not the first time the mission has been delayed; Virgin Orbit, while awaiting the licensing of Spaceport Cornwall in the fall, lowered its launch forecast for the next quarter as a result.

Cosmic Girl releases LauncherOne mid-air during the first test flight in July 2019. (Image credit: Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson)

While Virgin Orbit has yet to fly in the United Kingdom, they have already flown four successful flights from the Mojave Air and Space Port in southern California, collectively sending dozens of small satellites into low Earth orbit for several customers.

The U.K. market is crowded with startups all vying for the first-ever launch in the region, but all the other companies are using a variety of vertical rocket types that are expected to launch in 2023 at the earliest.

Elizabeth Howell is the co-author of "Why Am I Taller (opens in new tab)?" (ECW Press, 2022; with Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book about space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace