Spaceport Cornwall: Newquay set to be hub of UK space travel
Spaceport Cornwall is set to become Europe’s first horizontal launch site to provide a responsive, affordable and efficient way for Mr Branson’s company to send small satellites into Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). The breakthrough comes after Virgin Orbit successfully completed the first full orbital launch of its LauncherOne system from Mojave Air and Space Port in California last month. And, as Mr Branson’s “key delivery partner,” the Cornwall Council-funded project could host the first Virgin Orbit launches as early as 2022 – creating up to 350 jobs and adding up to £200million Gross Value Added (GVA) to the economy.
But interim Head of Spaceport Cornwall Melissa Thorpe says the company is already looking to the future.
She told Express.co.uk: “Virgin Orbit are a mobile launch platform – they go to their customer base.
“That means they are going to have several sites around the world – Cornwall will be the European hub – their only location in Europe.
“They will likely come, on average, five times to launch each year. As the market grows that might go up a bit.
Richard Branson has reportedly selected Cornwall as his European base for Virgin Orbit
Virgin Orbit has successfully tested its technology
“When they are not here there will be another company launching as well. So what we need to do here is create other activities around the facilities at the airport.
“We need to encourage satellite companies, rocket engineers and engine testing to happen when Virgin aren’t here – so it isn’t just a one-hit-wonder.”
Spaceports have traditionally been used to launch spacecrafts into orbit by blasting huge heavy-lift vehicles off launch pads vertically.
But Cornwall Airport will provide a unique approach – allowing a modified Boeing 747 to cruise to 30,000 feet before the rocket is blasted in what is known as an air-launch.
This can then deploy the payload – which plans to hold small satellites – into LEO.
READ MORE: Virgin project could hand Brexit Britain hundreds of jobs in ‘huge opportunity’
The modified Boeing 747 uses air-launch technology
And Ms Thorpe detailed how they are looking to make more changes to the site.
She added: “Between us and Goonhilly [Earth Station] there’s a lot going on at the minute, but I think the profile of Spaceport tends to attract a lot of attention.
“What we are trying to do now with that is to back it up with opportunities for companies to come and locate in Cornwall, so we are looking to build a facility on-site that will house them.
“At the minute, the airport is just an airport, and we’re integrating spaceflight into that.
“We will have quite a few [companies] to announce in the coming weeks and months.
Spaceport Cornwill will become Virgin Orbit’s UK hub
“We have worked in the past with Skyrora – an amazing rocket company based in Scotland and there’s a lot lined up for the future.”
Mr Branson is also the founder of Virgin Galactic – a spaceflight company that aims to provide suborbital spaceflights to space tourists – a market predicted to be worth £2.17billion by 2030.
And Chair of the Space Committee David Morris believes “it can happen” at Spaceport Cornwall in the future.
He added in an exclusive chat with Express.co.uk: “The idea is that it’s on the Gulf stream, it’s warmer down there so the weather is more reliable.
“If you launch from there you will be able to see most of Europe, as well as Greenland and Iceland, going up into the Arctic Circle.
The first launch should come next year
“The view up there would be amazing and that’s why Virgin are interested in the horizontal takeoff site.
“I think it’s a go-ahead and will boost the economy. I think they’re already looking into the feasibility.”
And while Ms Thorpe said there were no concrete plans in place with Spaceport yet, she suggested it could be on the table in the future.
She told Express.co.uk: “There are no plans with us at the minute, satellite launch is hard enough.
“We need to make sure we can efficiently do that first. We are 100 percent focused on our first launch.
“The industry is moving more and more towards spaceflight and Virgin Galactic is on the programme in the US.
“If that becomes more successful and more regular, then I’m sure we will look at how to do it in the UK.
Mr Branson also has another space company – Virgin Galactic
“At the minute, it’s a way away, because of the regulations – we need to make sure we can safely launch satellites before humans.”
For years, the UK has punched above its weight in the small satellite industry, but following Brexit, there have been concerns raised over how to hold on to UK-based companies.
And Spaceport Cornwall could provide a lifeline for Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
The Government, seeking a replacement for the EU’s Galileo project that the UK was kicked out of, has considered alternatives to an original plan to develop its own satellite constellation.
This has since meant scrapping former Prime Minister Theresa May’s £5billion proposal for a UK GNSS system by pursuing OneWeb – the LEO broadband constellation that the Government, along with Indian company Bharti Global, acquired from bankruptcy.
OneWeb has re-started launches of its small satellites, with more than 100 now in orbit in preparation for a commercial service in 2021.
Virgin Galactic could bring space tourism to the UK
December’s launch saw 36 satellites blasted into space on a Soyuz rocket from Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia.
But Mr Morris said the Government was looking at options to launch OneWeb from UK soil.
He said the project will be a boost to the UK’s space portfolio.
Mr Morris added: “I don’t want to sound like a cheerleader for OneWeb, but it’s been bought by the Government and it’s an opportunity to show off what we do well.
“OneWeb was developed on British technology, the Americans did have a part to play, but they withdrew and it’s now owned substantially by us.
“It’s attracting more money in investments than what we paid for – it’s already profitable.
Flights would give customers a unique experience
“We are showing already that we are leading the way in LEO technology around the globe.
“If Joe Biden comes along I’m sure his people will brief him on the technicalities.”
And Mr Morris tipped OneWeb to be on the agenda when Mr Johnson meets US President Joe Biden at the G7 Summit in Cornwall for the first time since his inauguration.
He added: “It is actually a very big deal, and we are a big player now.
“It won’t do any harm whatsoever for Spaceport to show its credentials to the Americans at G7.
“They had a say in it before, so maybe they may be interested in reinvesting in OneWeb after seeing how successful it has been in just a few months.
Virgin Galactic test spaceship over Spaceport America
“The Americans know a good thing when they see it and they will likely start thinking along those lines in the future.”
OneWeb was designed as a broadband constellation first and foremost – it will provide rural 4G, and one day 5G, Internet signals in hard-to-reach places.
The company says the latest development puts it on track to offer global Internet services to customers starting with the UK, Alaska, Northern Europe, Greenland, Iceland, the Arctic Seas, and Canada in 2021 with global service following in 2022.
It will operate in LEO, as opposed to the medium Earth orbits used by Galileo, GPS and other navigation systems.
But while the plan will see OneWeb’s first run of satellites used for broadband, future developments could include navigation capacity like Galileo.