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First-ever orbital satellite launch from British soil will be delayed

It's not our fault, says Civil Aviation Authority

Virgin Orbit's plan to launch a rocket into space from the UK has been delayed.

All eyes were on the historic flight, slated for December 14, which would have marked the first time orbital satellites have been launched from British soil. Virgin Orbit was to send nine satellites aboard its LauncherOne rocket – carried by a modified Boeing 747 nicknamed Cosmic Girl – from Spaceport Cornwall, but has decided to delay the flight.

CEO Dan Hart blamed the delay on failing to secure flight licenses and the need to perform "additional technical work" on the aircraft. 

"With licenses still outstanding for the launch itself and for the satellites within the payload, additional technical work needed to establish system health and readiness, and a very limited available launch window of only two days, we have determined that it is prudent to retarget launch for the coming weeks to allow ourselves and our stakeholders time to pave the way for full mission success," Hart explained in a statement to The Register.

"All stakeholders continue to drive in a coordinated effort towards a historic milestone, which will soon establish the UK as the first nation with the capability to launch to orbit from western Europe."

The UK's Civil Aviation Authority, however, denied the delay was due to a licensing issue. "The UK space regulation process is not a barrier to a UK space launch," Tim Johnson, director for space regulation, declared in a statement. "Virgin Orbit has said … that there are some technical issues that will need to be resolved before launch. These in no way relate to the timing of when a license will be issued by the Civil Aviation Authority."

Johnson said Spaceport Cornwall had already secured a license permitting Virgin Orbit to conduct a testing program prior to the 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. We continue to work with Virgin Orbit, and other stakeholders, to play our part in delivering a safe UK launch."

Unlike more traditional upstanding rockets which take off from the ground, Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne hitches a ride under the wing of a 747 and is flown to about 35,000 feet (10km).

The LauncherOne's booster is then dropped and the aircraft gets out of its way. A few seconds later, the rocket ignites its fuel and is propelled into space where it deploys small satellite payloads in low Earth orbit. Virgin Orbit's first test of LauncherOne using Cosmic Girl failed in 2020, but its second, third, and fourth attempts succeeded

The space biz has managed to carry 26 satellites to space so far. Its customers include the US Department of Defense, Royal Netherlands Air Force, and various aerospace companies.

Hart said the next set of satellites to be flown to space from the UK are already strapped inside the LauncherOne rocket.

"At this time, all our customer spacecraft have been encapsulated into our payload assembly and into our LauncherOne rocket, which is now mated to our carrier aircraft on the Echo Apron at Spaceport Cornwall. Through hard work and close coordination with all our launch partners, a commercial airport has been transformed into western Europe's first orbital spaceport," he told us.

Or it will be transformed, once this mission commences. ®

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