LONDON: Final preparations were under way Monday for the first rocket launch from UK soil, catapulting it into the exclusive club of nine nations able to send crafts into Earth’s orbit, reports AFP.
A repurposed Boeing 747 carrying the 70-foot (21-metre) rocket containing nine satellites will take off from a spaceport in Cornwall, southwest England, at 2216 GMT. The rocket will detach from the aircraft at a height of 35,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean to the south of Ireland before later discharging the satellites. The aircraft will then return to Spaceport Cornwall, a consortium that includes Virgin Orbit and the UK Space Agency, at Cornwall Airport Newquay.
Joining that really exclusive club of launch nations is so important because it gives us our own access to space... that we’ve never had before here in the UK, Spaceport Cornwall chief Melissa Thorpe told BBC television on Monday.
Over 2,000 people are expected to watch the launch named Start Me Up after the Rolling Stones song.
There’s two stages to it... two bits of excitement, really, the takeoff and then the deployment of the rocket, Thorpe added.
The satellites have a variety of civil and defence functions from sea monitoring that will help countries detect people smugglers trafficking migrants to space weather observation.
Although scheduled for Monday evening, adverse weather conditions could see the launch delayed or postponed to back-up dates later in January.
For a long time, satellites were primarily used for institutional missions by national space agencies but most of Europe’s spaceport projects are now private sector initiatives.
The market has exploded with the emergence of small start-ups, modern technology making both rockets and satellites smaller, and the rapidly growing number of applications for satellites.
Some 18,500 small satellites — those weighing less than 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) — are expected to be launched between 2022 and 2031, compared to 4,600 in the previous decade.