A new space race? Great Britain enters the orbital launch business.

The UK’s first-ever orbital space launch, expected within days, will also be the first commercial launch from anywhere in Western Europe. It represents the growing space ambitions in Britain and Europe at a time when the commercial, scientific and military importance of space is clearly increasing.

The upcoming launch from Spaceport Cornwall hints at the UK’s current restrictions as well as aspirations.

Why we wrote this

For people used to hearing about rocket launches from Florida or Russia, the name Spaceport Cornwall might sound like an oxymoron. But the UK is a maker of satellites – and now Europe’s first player to send them into space.

Instead of a vertically-lifting rocket, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket system will be carried by a modified Boeing 747 to an altitude of 35,000 feet, where it will jettison and then fire its own engine to fly into space.

The system cannot compete with companies like SpaceX in terms of payload. However, the UK is focusing on a niche where it already has a presence: small satellites. The first launch will carry not only various British satellites, but also Oman’s first satellite, one from Poland, and a US-British joint mission.

The Polish one in particular symbolizes the continued cooperation between the United Kingdom and the European Union after Brexit. Ian Jones, CEO of Cornwall-based Goonhilly, the world’s only commercial space communications facility, says: “Space has always been an area where political differences have been transcended.”

Take a look inside Spaceport Cornwall’s operations and the focus on precision and innovation is clear.

People wear immaculate white lab coats, hair tucked into blue beanies, faces covered by masks and goggles. The space is immaculate with almost no furniture or clutter. Workers huddle around a table, focused on the task at hand, with a giant rocket-tipped cage looming in the background.

Here in South West England, in this clean room, satellites will be integrated into their dispenser – part of a launch system that will spit them out into space when they reach the required orbit. It is part of a brand new facility paving the way for the UK’s first-ever space launch.

Why we wrote this

For people used to hearing about rocket launches from Florida or Russia, the name Spaceport Cornwall might sound like an oxymoron. But the UK is a maker of satellites – and now Europe’s first player to send them into space.

The launch, which is expected within a few days, will also be the first commercial launch from anywhere in Western Europe. It represents a broader surge of spaceports coming online in Europe, from other parts of the UK to Norway and Italy. The moves underscore the growing global importance of space as a commercial, scientific and military field – and the determination of European nations, including Britain, to get involved.

“I think this launch is incredibly important for the UK,” says Juliana Suess, research analyst and policy leader for space security at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based defense and security think tank. “Among the few truly tangible milestones I would single out from the government’s recent national space strategy was sovereign launch capability in 2022.”

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