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License to launch: UK space regulator gives Virgin Orbit satellites the go-ahead

First satellite to be launched into orbit from western Europe... when it takes off

After some tension around a delayed launch of what will be the first satellite to go into orbit from British soil – or indeed from anywhere in western Europe – UK regulators have confirmed they've issued all licenses necessary for Virgin Orbit to deploy a rocket for horizontal takeoff from a modified Boeing 747 from Spaceport Cornwall.

The mission – originally meant to depart on December 14 – is to launch from Spaceport Cornwall, operating out of Cornwall Newquay Airport, in the "coming weeks". The modified jumbo jet will carry its LauncherOne rocket, with a nine-satellite payload, which will then be flown and released in a designated launch location over the Atlantic Ocean.

Stating that it had issued the licenses "in 15 months, putting the UK framework on a competitive footing with international space regulators", the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said the "final remaining" paperwork had been issued to Virgin Orbit.

Transport Secretary Mark Harper said: "Today we are one step closer to opening the UK's galactic gateway, with Virgin Orbit receiving a historic first licence to allow the UK's first ever spaceflight launch."

Earlier this month, Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart blamed the delay on the need to perform "additional technical work" on the aircraft, although he also mentioned the company had failed to secure flight licenses, telling The Register in a statement: "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."

The CAA denied at the time that licensing was the problem. We've asked Virgin Orbit for further comment on this as well as proposed launch dates.

Hart's statement yesterday, however, smoothed over the subject, referring to collaborative efforts:

Receiving Virgin Orbit's range and launch licenses takes us one step closer to the first satellite launch take-off from UK soil. This is a major milestone for the Civil Aviation Authority and represents the successful completion of an enormous effort, which has included the construction of new regulations, new processes and new teams.

Ian Annett, deputy chief executive at the UK Space Agency, said: "With Virgin Orbit's licences secured, we have achieved another key delivery milestone ahead of the first satellite launch from the UK."

Virgin also received a range control license from the space regulator, which means it can issue warning notices to tell people they need to keep out of "hazardous areas" and monitor the progress of its rocket.

One of Virgin Orbit's differentiators is its horizontal launch of its LauncherOne rocket from its Boeing 747 carrier aircraft, Cosmic Girl. This approach means the company doesn't need a fixed launchpad and can manage trajectories that might not be a possibility when you're plotting a launch from the surface. The Boeing can also fly above the kind of weather that can ground one of its vertically launched counterparts.

The company had planned to perform up to six launches in 2022, but ended up with doing just two so far (would be three with the UK launch). Hart said on an earnings call for the company's Q3, when it had been "expecting three launches" for the year, that they were "driven by the timing of regulatory approvals, our efforts to obtain certifications for high-value payloads and satellite readiness."

He added that the company had "expanded our geographic reach with the addition of spaceport agreements in Australia, Luxembourg and South Korea."

Virgin Orbit said in an SEC filing earlier this week [PDF] that it raised an extra $20 million from its investment arm via a convertible note, expecting to spend it all on working capital. ®

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