First rocket launch from Britain to mark Queen’s Platinum Jubilee
Ministers want Britain to launch its first ever rocket into space in time for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations next year.
Spaceport Cornwall is the frontrunner to be the site for the launch, with Virgin Orbit providing the rocket.
Sources in the space sector said there was a “great keenness from industry to do this for the Jubilee”.
For a launch to be economically worthwhile, it needs to deliver a “payload” into space – such as satellites used for commercial purposes. The Government owns satellite company OneWeb and it could supply the payload for the historic venture.
Ministers are said to have “encouraged” OneWeb to use UK launch capacity when it becomes available in 2022 and sources said the company is “certainly interested”, although final details have yet to be agreed.
The Government is keen to demonstrate the UK as a space power. A sovereign launch capacity would also boost the resilience of Britain’s space assets, which could be rapidly replaced without relying on foreign powers.
The launch site has also yet to be determined, but Spaceport Cornwall, which acts as an airstrip for Virgin Orbit, has previously said it plans to be ready for its first flight by June 2022, in time for the 70-year anniversary of the Queen’s coronation.
Cornwall is in a race with Lockheed Martin’s Shetland space port and UK company Orbex, which operates out of Space Hub Sutherland, to provide the first space launch from Britain.
Virgin Orbit’s launch system involves a rocket firing from under the wing of a modified Boeing 747, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, which then blasts into low-earth-orbit.
Britain has never launched a rocket into orbit from its soil, although the UK previously built the Black Arrow rocket in the 1960s, which was tested in the Australian outback.
Rocket launches from the UK inched closer to reality in 2021 after the Civil Aviation Authority became the official space regulator with the power to provide licences to blast off from Britain.
Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rockets are capable of carrying payloads of up to 300kg. OneWeb’s rockets weigh around 150kg each. It is planning to launch 648 in total, which will orbit at around 750 miles high providing broadband access.
The majority of OneWeb’s satellites have been launched from Russia by France’s Arianespace.
The company, which is headquartered in London with a factory in Florida, was rescued by the British state and Indian conglomerate Bharti last year in a $1bn deal after it fell into bankruptcy.
Taxpayers retain a “golden share” that gives it a final say over other countries accessing its technology.
Earlier this month, OneWeb said it allocated $3bn (£2.2bn) to move manufacturing from the US to the UK.
The Queen’s official Platinum Jubilee celebrations will take place in June with an extended Bank Holiday from Thursday 2 to Sunday 5 June. They will include a Trooping of the Colour, the Derby at Epsom Downs, and a “Big Jubilee Lunch” on Sunday.
Britain’s efforts to develop a sovereign rocket launch capability have been over a decade in the making, with the UK Space Agency, set up in 2010, working towards the goal.
It has provided financial support to Spaceport Cornwall, SaxaVord Spaceport (Shetland) and Space Hub Sutherland.
Each of the spaceports could cater for a diverse range of customers, ranging from government agencies to academia, by using space data for activities such as observing weather patterns and monitoring climate change.