UK’s First Satellite Launch and Everything That Followed

UK's space endeavour

The small satellite launch industry is a burgeoning business globally, especially in the United States. Now the UK also entered the game on Monday, January 9, 2023, with its historic Start Me Up project. Under this initiative, they were to launch nine rockets into the Earth’s orbit.

The launch was special since it was one of the first space endeavours undertaken on UK soil. Thousands of people were eagerly waiting to witness the historical event, and the UK Space Agency shared a live video streaming link a day before. It finally took off on Monday night from Spaceport Cornwall. The mission was carried out by the space company Vision Orbit.

Virgin Orbit was one of the first among many start-ups that attempted to create small rockets, which could deliver lightweight satellites to orbit quickly, and the projects would cost as cheap as chips. It is a growing business model with numerous global competitors. However, the industry is capricious in nature, and, therefore, small-rocket start-ups are suffering failures, including big names like US-based companies Firefly and Astra.

Start of a new era:
The launch would be a key milestone in the United Kingdom’s growing commercial satellite sector. Morgan Stanley estimates that the global space market could reach 1 trillion USD by 2040. To capture a large share of the market, the UK has been devotedly working on commercial spaceports for several years.

The UK’s space industry is valued at £16.5 billion ($20 billion) and is said to have generated 47,000 jobs between 2019 and 2020. Ian Annett, deputy chief executive of the UK Space Agency, three days prior to the launch, said that this event would cement UK’s position as “Europe’s leading destination for commercial small satellite launch.”

The launch is not only significant for the history of the UK’s space industry, but it is also playing a significant role in accelerating investment, creating job opportunities and expediting growth in Cornwall and other regions across the UK.

Details of the launch:

Initially, the launch was scheduled before Christmas 2022 but was postponed to 2023 due to technical and regulatory issues. The project involved a repurposed Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 aircraft and Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket. The plane was named after the Rolling Stones’ 1981 hit Cosmic Girl. Nine small satellites were to be deployed from the rocket.

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne suffers failure:

The much-anticipated liftoff did not go as expected. The Cosmic Girl flew to 35,000ft over the Atlantic Ocean, not far from the Kerry Coast, and the rocket was released from under the plane’s wing containing nine small satellites towards space. However, LauncherOne suffered an anomaly, and the satellites could not reach orbit.

Christopher Relf, director of systems engineering and verification for Virgin Orbit, in the launch’s live stream, informed that the launch did not go as intended, although the rocket launched from the plane without any hindrance. Chief Executive of Virgin Orbit, Dan Hart, took to Twitter to confirm the news. He further added that the engineers were working towards finding the reasons for the anomaly.

Undoubtedly, this was one of the intricate projects and had multiple layers of complexities. The Cosmic Girl had safely returned to Spaceport Cornwall with those onboard unharmed. The impact of the failure was evident in the share market as the company’s share plummeted 28% in after-hours after falling 9% during trading hours on Monday.

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