The prospect of a “historic” space flight taking off from Cornwall early in the new year has taken a major step forward after the UK Civil Aviation Authority issued a launch license for the project.
Virgin Orbit will begin final preparations for the first launch of satellites from UK soil, though no final date for lift-off has been set.
There has been growing frustration within the project that the licensing process has led to the much-anticipated launch being delayed. But on Wednesday the CAA said Virgin Orbit had demonstrated it had taken “all reasonable steps” to ensure the launch was as safe as possible and had met “appropriate security and environmental” requirements.
Virgin Orbit also received its range control license from the CAA, which enables it to issue warning notices to keep people out of hazardous areas and monitor the progress of the mission.
A repurposed Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 aircraft named Cosmic Girl, fitted with a rocket that will propel nine satellites into orbit, has been waiting at Spaceport Cornwall for the go-ahead from the regulator since October.
When it eventually takes off, the plane will fly from the spaceport, which is based at Cornwall Airport Newquay, and soar to 35,000ft (10,700 metres) over the Atlantic and release the LauncherOne rocket that will send the satellites into orbit.
The CAA said it had issued the licenses within 15 months, which it argues compares to the timeframe followed by international space regulators.
Tim Johnson, the director for space regulation at the CAA, said: “With public safety at the heart of our decision-making, we’ve worked with Virgin Orbit to assess their applications and issue licenses within our expected timelines.”
Dan Hart, the chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said: “Receiving range and launch licenses takes us one step closer to the first satellite launch take-off from UK soil. We are progressing towards the first launch from Cornwall – keeping a strong focus on a safe and successful mission for all.”
Local politicians and leaders hope the mission, named Start Me Up after the Rolling Stones song, will boost Cornwall’s growing space industry.
The launch is likely to take place in the middle of the night and will be live-streamed.
Melissa Thorpe, the head of Spaceport Cornwall, said: “We are thrilled for the Virgin Orbit licenses to be in place for this historic launch. My team cannot wait to share in the excitement of the upcoming launch with everyone that has made it happen.”