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 permit for the project.
Virgin Orbit will begin final preparations for the first satellite launch from UK soil, although no final date has been set for liftoff.
There is growing frustration within the project that the permitting process has led to the delay of the much-anticipated start. 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 safety and environmental requirements.
Virgin Orbit has also received its range control license from the CAA, which allows it to issue warning alerts to keep people away from dangerous areas and monitor mission progress.
A redesigned Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 named Cosmic Girl, equipped with a rocket that will propel nine satellites into orbit, has been waiting at the Cornwall Spaceport for the go-ahead from the regulator since October.
When it finally takes off, the plane will fly from the spaceport, which is based at Cornwall’s Newquay Airport, and fly 35,000 feet (10,700 meters) above the Atlantic and release the LauncherOne rocket that will send the satellites into orbit.
The CAA said it had issued the permits within 15 months, which it says compares with the timetable followed by international space regulators.
Tim Johnson, director of airspace regulation at the CAA, said: “With public safety at the heart of our decision-making, we have worked with Virgin Orbit to assess their applications and issue licenses within our expected timescales.”
Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said: “Receiving range and launch permits brings us one step closer to the first satellite launch taking off from UK soil. We are moving 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 streamed live.
Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, said: “We are delighted that Virgin Orbit licenses are available for this historic launch. My team looks forward to sharing the excitement of the upcoming launch with everyone who has made it happen.”