Will Virgin Orbit Get a UK Permit for Horizontal Launches from Cornwall?

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Artist concept of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) 70-metric-ton configuration launching to space. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built for deep space missions, including to an asteroid and ultimately to Mars. Image Credit: NASA/MSFC
Artist concept of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) 70-metric-ton configuration launching to space. SLS will be the most powerful rocket ever built for deep space missions, including to an asteroid and ultimately to Mars. Image Credit: NASA/MSFC

Recently, Virgin Orbit carried out its first successful mission and is now hoping to launch from Cornwall spaceport in the UK. Will it get a permit?

Will There Be a Place for Virgin Orbit in the UK?

On January 17, 2021, Virgin Orbit has proven that its Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne are ready for serial launches. The company successfully deployed a series of CubeSats into LEO and is now getting ready for its second mission. Eventually, Richard Branson’s company hopes to launch from spaceport Cornwall in the UK. But before that happens, certain challenges will have to be addressed. 

Specifics of Virgin Orbit’s Rockets

Virgin Orbit uses an air-launch, i.e. horizontal launch system. The solution is not new and has been used by Northrop Grumman, with its Pegasus series of rockets, since the 1990s. Still, Northrop’s primary reason for carrying out slightly over 40 missions in three decades is its high launch cost of $40 million and a small payload capacity of 443 kg.

While Virgin Orbit could not significantly increase the payload capacity (LauncherOne can carry up to 500 kg of cargo), the company did manage to drastically reduce the launch cost to just $12 million. This major achievement called for some pretty innovative tech. In particular, LauncherOne is powered by a liquid propellant based on the combination of liquid oxygen (LOX) and RP-1 — a kerosene-based fuel traditionally used for vertical rocket launches.

Even though liquid propellant allows Virgin to seriously reduce its launch costs, the fuel must remain in a cryogenic state from the point of loading up till the rocket ignites its engine. Since the ignition happens next to a manned plane that carries the rocket to an altitude of 35,000 feet, a rocket explosion could cost human lives. 

On the bright side, air-launch tech is less hazardous to ground infrastructure because the modified aircraft releases the rocket above the sea surface. If, however, the malfunction happens before Cosmic Girl reaches the sea, the consequences could be disastrous. 

Plans to Launch from Cornwall & Environmental Considerations

Now that Virgin Orbit carried out its first successful launch, its chances of launching from an upcoming UK spaceport Cornwall have increased. Of course, we will have to wait and see if the upcoming Virgin launches are as successful because its prior LauncherOne flight from May 25, 2020, ended in engine malfunction and payload loss. 

Besides, even if Virgin has done its homework and fixed all malfunctions, the company will still need to get UK’s permit for launches. Right now, due to its potentially life-threatening technology, the company can only launch from a launchpad in California. New permits and locations may follow, but Virgin will have to conduct more than one successful launch before that happens. 

One more issue both spaceport Cornwall and Virgin Orbit will have to address is the environmental impact of rocket launches. Here, the situation is not too bad for Virgin because a recent assessment of the Green House Gas (GHG) emissions in Cornwall has shown that Virgin operations would only account for 0.1% of total emissions in the area. So, the environmental impact of RP-1 fuel is not much different from jet fuel emissions. The biggest challenge for Virgin is that RP-1 does damage the ozone layer, which is a pressing concern in today’s ecology. 

Regarding noise pollution, the disturbance will be minimal, which once again speaks in favor of Cornwall’s partnership with Virgin. Cosmic Girl, a modified Boeing plane used to carry LauncherOne under its wing, causes the same noise levels as any other cargo plane. The rocket itself is released at such a high altitude that Cornwall residents would not be disturbed. 

Is Cornwall in Line with Virgin Orbit’s Tasks?

If Virgin Orbit’s upcoming launches are as successful as its last mission, both Virgin and Cornwall could benefit from the collaboration. For starters, Cornwall’s proximity to the sea reduces potential hazards to ground infrastructure and residential areas. Next, Britain already produces plenty of satellites but currently lacks launch facilities and providers to deploy those into required orbits. Spaceport Cornwall could become operational in 2022, which means that Virgin has some time to prove its launch reputation. 

One more aspect that speaks in favor of Virgin is its launch flexibility. Cosmic Girl can take off from literally any airport because Virgin’s air-launch system does not require complex ground infrastructure. So, given that the UK is already working on a legal framework to regulate rocket launches, one can reasonably expect that rockets will eventually fly from the UK turf. 

Of course, only time can tell if Virgin will ever get a permit from Cornwall in the UK or if its LauncherOne tech stands the test of time. Besides, it is not yet clear how the UK will regulate foreign rocket launches. However, at a point when the UK space industry does not have a single commissioned spaceport, partnering up with Virgin is a wise choice that could become a huge step forward for the UK.