The first ever orbital space launch from the UK looks on track to take place this evening, Monday 9 January.

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The mission - named ‘Start Me Up’ as a tribute to British rock band The Rolling Stones - is launching from Spaceport Cornwall, based at Newquay Airport.

It will see Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747 - called ‘Cosmic Girl’ - take off from a runway, then release its LauncherOne rocket carrying a payload of satellites.

Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket ignites moments after being released by carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl for the company's Launch Demo 2 mission. January 17th, 2021. Credit: Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson.
Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket ignites moments after being released by carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl for the company's Launch Demo 2 mission. January 17th, 2021. Credit: Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson.

The mission’s launch window opens at 22:16 UTC, but a livestream covering pre-fight operations and launch commentary begins at 21:00 UTC.

You can watch the launch of the Start Me Up mission via the livestream below, courtesy of the Virgin Orbit YouTube channel.

Virgin Orbit launch livestream

All you need to know about the Virgin Orbit launch

Based at Newquay Airport, Spaceport Cornwall is able to host horizontal launches, which involve a carrier aircraft taking off from a runway to reach the desired launch altitude and releasing a rocket in mid-air.

Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747, called Cosmic Girl, will release the LauncherOne rocket at an altitude of around 35,000 feet (10,700 metres).

The system can transport up to 300kg of cargo into orbit.

spaceport cornwall virgin orbit plane
Credit: Spaceport Cornwall

The ‘Start Me Up’ mission from Spaceport Cornwall was due to launch by the end of 2022, and was granted a licence to fly by the Civil Aviation Authority on 16 November, but pre-Christmas launch attempts were stood down.

Now, it seems like the Virgin Orbit mission will finally launch, beginning a new era in UK spaceflight.

The LauncherOne rocket will deploy 7 payloads into low-Earth orbit.

These will be a range of satellites, with 5 from the UK, including the IOD-3 Amber satellite developed by the Satellite Applications Catapult and Horizon Technologies, and built by AAC Clyde Space.

It is the first of more than 20 satellites that will be in the Amber constellation, designed to provide governments and customers with maritime data to help combat problems like illegal fishing, smuggling and trafficking.

Preperations for the launch of the LauncherOne rocket at Spaceport Cornwall, November 2022. Credit: James Beck/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Preperations for the launch of the LauncherOne rocket at Spaceport Cornwall, November 2022. Credit: James Beck/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Notably, among the UK payloads is the test launch of the world’s first returnable and reusable space-manufacturing platform, called ForgeStar-0.

Made by Welsh company Space Forge, this platform eventually aims to harness space to make materials off-Earth in microgravity conditions.

Also on board, in another first, is the Sultanate of Oman’s first-ever satellite, AMAN, for Earth observation.

A further Polish satellite is also to be deployed as part of SatRev’s STORK constellation for Earth observation.

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The mission has been funded by the UK Space Agency.

Authors

Iain Todd, BBC Sky at Night Magazine
Iain ToddScience journalist

Iain Todd is BBC Sky at Night Magazine's Content Editor. He fell in love with the night sky when he caught his first glimpse of Orion, aged 10.

Shaoni Bhattacharya
Shaoni BhattacharyaScience journalist

Shaoni Bhattacharya is a science journalist and writer.