MAGGIE PAGANO: Now watch that Girl go – UK space industry set to lift off


MAGGIE PAGANO: Watch Cosmic Girl go – UK space industry set to lift off now that Spaceport Cornwall is ready for action and UK can launch own satellites

  • Historic mission for Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit 
  • Repurposed jumbo will be launched from Newquay carrying nine satellites
  • First time a rocket carrying satellites has been launched from the UK

Get ready for Britain’s space industry to lift off on Monday night. At around 10.16pm, a repurposed jumbo 747, named Cosmic Girl, will be launched from Newquay carrying nine satellites tucked under her wing. 

Cosmic Girl will then fly west from Cornwall to Cork in Ireland, which is where the jumbo releases the rocket – known as LauncherOne – at an altitude of 35,000ft, to send the satellites deep into space. They will then be dropped off at an altitude of around 340 miles and circle the earth. 

Reach for the skies: It will be a historic mission for Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit team as it is the first time a rocket carrying satellites has been launched from the UK

It will be a historic mission for Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit team as it is the first time a rocket carrying satellites has been launched from the UK. 

Until now, British firms, which lead the world in making satellites, have had to send them to overseas spaceports to get them off the ground. But now that Spaceport Cornwall is ready for action, the UK can launch its own products, which is why it is such a big milestone for the space industry. 

It also means that Britain’s space industry will become even more attractive to overseas companies and open up new partnerships across countries and governments. It already has, says Spaceport’s boss Melissa Thorpe. Spaceport is already seeing the benefits of having the new launch pad, which is ready for action with a new R&D centre and workshops that open in March. 

This latest Virgin Orbit launch, partly funded by the UK Space Agency, is being run together with the US National Reconnaissance Office. They are sending satellites up mainly for gathering military intelligence and security purposes – such as listening to radio transmissions coming from ships – for both the UK and US governments. 

One of the satellites going up is also Wales’s first-ever satellite, made by Cardiff start-up Space Forge, which is experimenting with components for future mini orbital factories. Apart from the obvious military and telecommunications uses, satellites are also being used increasingly in many civil applications for research in the healthcare, agribusiness and transport sectors, but also for weather forecasting and climate data. 

Some satellites carry crop seeds to see how they adapt at high altitudes and different temperatures, while others are being used to test how certain medicines – and viruses and bacteria – survive or adapt to the extremes of space. All handy information for when man is ready to live on Mars. 

Much of this work is being carried out at the Harwell campus, near Oxford. Known as the UK’s space gateway – and the biggest in Europe – it is the most astonishing place. On a visit a few years ago, I saw first hand the work being done at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, which has been involved in more than 200 space missions.

Here they test the satellites in purpose-built, testing chambers to check whether satellites, and their equipment, can survive the thrust of going into space. 

Next door, at the Satellite Applications Catapult, you could see images being beamed down from satellites – from all the ships moving around the world to the smacks of jellyfish around the British coast. 

All this has practical purposes. The images of the ships allow researchers to identify which are legally registered or not, while EDF was able to detect that it was jellyfish blocking its nuclear reactors at Torness some years ago. 

Even more astonishing was the Diamond Light Source, the UK’s only synchrotron and one of just 50 in the world which cost £500m to build. It is being used to shed light on the origins of the solar system. The professor in charge showed me dust particles which had been harvested from the Wild 2 comet, a huge snowball of dirty ice and rock hurtling through space some 242m miles away. Mind-blowing stuff. 

The implications of all this research is vast – from understanding more about the universe to being big business. It is estimated the UK’s space industry will be worth £40billion in a few years’ time – a tenth of the global market – with thousands of new jobs. About 40,000 people work in space now and another 100,000 indirectly. 

Yet there is a downside to man’s quest to conquer the final frontier – orbital debris, or space junk. It is something you can see on the Harwell screens, bits and pieces of metal flying around space. It is thought there are 19,000 satellites stuck in space. 

Ironically, one of the biggest projects engineers are working on is finding ways to bring those satellites back down to earth. What goes up usually comes down. But not in space.

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