The UK is preparing to host its first-ever rocket launch – but it is fast becoming a race against time to take off on Christmas Day.
The titular Cosmic Girls will take off from Cornwall, rehearsals go ahead after UK government approval First Spaceport Permit in November.
While exact details have been kept under wraps since then, Virgin Orbit and Spaceport Cornwall have always set a date for the week of December 12.
But the date was reset to “the next few weeks” after it was discovered that there were technical issues that needed to be resolved.
So, will Cosmic Maiden beat Santa when she flies over the UK this year?
With the clock ticking, here’s everything you need to know about Britain’s involvement in the space race.
How will the launch go?
The key thing about this launch is that it won’t remind you Classic NASA Spectaclessome gigantic spacecraft launched vertically into the atmosphere.
Cosmic Girl may be named like a replica Star Wars ship, but it’s actually an old Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747.
The seats were removed and the upper deck converted into a control center for launch engineers before being shipped from Virgin Orbit’s California factory to the Southwest Coast.
Below its left wing is LauncherOne, a 21-meter (69-foot) rocket that will blast off at 35,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean before accelerating to 8,000 mph to deploy seven satellites into orbit.
So when it comes to the view from Spaceport Cornwall, it looks no different than any other aircraft taking off under cover of night.
Cosmic Girl, operated by Virgin Orbit, has a lot of experience in this regard – in its past life, it has carried more than 2.5 million passengers on nearly 8,300 flights.
Why don’t we launch vertically?
As impressive and inspiring as those familiar Cape Canaveral operations are, they’re often beset by delays.
The so-called horizontal launches that Cosmic Girl will perform are much less dependent on the weather.
It also doesn’t require as much ground infrastructure, so – simply put – there’s less room for error than a vertical launch.
But that’s not to say the UK might not one day get its own vertical launch like the US or Russia, with conventional launch pads coming online in Scotland next year.
Of course, it’s ironic that Cosmic Girl’s launch was delayed anyway.
What do we know about delays?
Virgin Orbit said “additional technical work” was required to “establish system health and readiness”.
However, the company also appears to be pointing fingers at the CAA, saying that as of December 8, the launch permit and the satellites in the payload “remain unfinished”.
But Tim Johnson, director of space regulation at the watchdog, insisted: “The UK space regulatory process is not an obstacle to UK space launches.”
He said the technical issues mentioned by Virgin Orbit “have nothing to do with the timing of the licensing”.
Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, said she remained “optimistic” about the launch, but did not provide an updated timetable.
Virgin Orbit said it was “cautiously repositioning the launch in the coming weeks” to ensure the mission’s success.
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What is the purpose of the mission?
The first goal seems to be to give it a cool name: Start Me Up.
The team worked their ass off over eight years to reach this stage, in which the satellites – which are also largely built in the UK – LauncherOne now loaded into the spaceport.
Including Prototype Track Factory Used to make high-value alloys and semiconductors, and a satellite to join a satellite constellation to monitor illegal fishing, smuggling, trafficking, piracy and terrorism.
It forms part of the government’s National Space Strategy, which sets out how the UK will become the first country in Europe to put a satellite into orbit in 2022.
Science Secretary Nusrat Ghani said: “With 47,000 jobs in the UK, our growing space industry is a vital part of the economy and plays an important role in driving investment, growth and prosperity. “
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What does this mean for the UK’s future in space?
There is no doubt that this is a momentous moment for the UK space programme.
Although like Helen Sharmanwho became the first Briton in space in 1989, and Tim Peake27 years later a historic spacewalk has flown the flag for the UK in space as never before has a rocket been launched from the UK into space.
The UK has only completed one orbital launch, the Black Arrow in 1971, which was actually launched from Australia.
Ian Annette, deputy chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said the Cornwall launch would be an “iconic moment”.
“This will boost investment, bring new jobs to communities and organizations across the UK, and inspire the next generation of space scientists and engineers,” he added.
As the country faces uncertain times, on the ground to say the least, the excitement of Last Frontier could prove to be the perfect distraction.