WASHINGTON — Nearly a year after Virgin Orbit’s failed launch from England, U.K. government officials remain optimistic about the prospects for building the country’s launch industry.
The UK space agency released a lessons learned report on December 14 on the “UK Pathfinder launch,” the January 2023 launch of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne from the Cornwall spaceport in southwest England. The launch was billed as the first orbital launch from UK soil, but the payload of several small satellites failed to reach orbit when the rocket’s second stage malfunctioned.
The agency stated in the report: “Although the satellites on board the rocket were not placed in orbit due to a technical defect in the rocket’s second stage engine, this historic event demonstrated the UK’s ability to launch safely, legally and with appropriate coordination across all parts of the world.” “. Government.”
The report made several recommendations about the process of launching missiles from the country. This included simplifying the licensing process to make it easier for companies to prove that they have the financial and technical capabilities necessary to carry out a launch, exchanging information between various government agencies involved in launches and improving coordination with other countries whose airspace and waters may be affected. By launch.
The report concluded that many of these lessons were an inevitable consequence of implementing new regulations and processes for the first time, although in at least one case the government placed some blame on Virgin Orbit. “International engagement was complicated by Virgin Orbit’s overly optimistic delivery plans, resulting in significant effort and goodwill across the globe,” the report noted. [His Majesty’s Government] and with other countries to enable a launch window that lacks credibility.
Government officials admit that the failed launch was a setback, but they remain optimistic about the country’s launch industry. “It was a blow, wasn’t it? It was very disappointing for everyone involved,” Craig Brown, investment director at the UK Space Agency, said during a December 14 webinar on the UK space sector organized by the Westminster Business Forum. “It reflects “Very well the challenges of launch and space in general.”
He said there was still a role for the state in the launch, pointing to a “bottleneck” in the global launch. “Is the business case still being backlogged for a small launch in the UK? We believe it is,” he said. “There are good reasons for the UK to have a sovereign capability and be able to launch its own satellites from its territory.”
Later in the webinar, Colin Macleod, head of UK spaceflight regulation at the Civil Aviation Authority, said the current regulations were “fit for purpose” based on the strong interest his office was seeing. “We currently have nine launch companies in various stages of applications with us as the regulator. There are not many other countries in the world that can say that.”
The names of those companies were not revealed, but several companies, whether in the United Kingdom or elsewhere, have announced plans to launch from spaceports in the country as soon as next year. The British Space Agency announced on December 13 that the “Boost!” of the European Space Agency. The program awarded £6.7 million ($8.5 million) to HyImpulse and Orbex to support the development of environmentally sustainable systems to support launches from spaceports on Shetland Island and northern Scotland, respectively.
HyImpulse, which announced an agreement to launch from the SaxaVord Spaceport in the Shetland Islands on November 15, plans to begin orbital launches there as soon as late 2025. Orbex, whose CEO abruptly resigned in April, did not provide recent updates on the status of Its center. Launch vehicle or launch site. A company spokesperson said on December 6 that the company does not have a date for its first launch.
McLeod said organizers faced criticism before and after Virgin Orbit’s launch. “We had a lot of media attention in the run-up to Virgin’s launch telling us that we were being too slow and too strict and that we needed to get on with things,” he recalls. “After the Virgo anomaly, we were told that we did it too quickly, didn’t take things into account enough and got it wrong.”
He said the experience showed the “astonishing complexity” of all the issues associated with the launch. “The lessons we learned were very valuable.”
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