Britain is hoping to get into the space launch business on Monday night, as a modified Boeing 747 carrying a 70-foot rocket stuffed with satellites is expected to take off from an airstrip in Cornwall, in southwest England. If the weather and other conditions are favorable, the launch would be the first time satellites have launched from U.K. soil.
An hour later after takeoff, off the coast of Ireland, the plane will drop the rocket, which will fire and take nine satellites up into orbital positions 300 to 600 miles above the Earth. People in Britain’s space industry say the breakthrough will have huge importance even though the launch service is being provided by a California-based company, Virgin Orbit, which was founded by entrepreneur Richard Branson.
Having launch sites available in Britain rather than going to distant ones like Cape Canaveral in Florida or New Zealand “makes a huge difference in terms of being able to develop satellites and to fly them,” said Emma Jones, head of U.K. business development for RHEA Group, a space security firm, which has placed a satellite on the Virgin Orbit rocket.
The expected launch is the first big payoff of an effort by the British government to boost the country’s space industry in the wake of Brexit, which has strained scientific and business ties with the European Union, the country’s main trading partner.
While the current launch has been delayed for around two months, and the next one is still not scheduled, Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit’s chief executive, said that Britain seemed to be on track to develop a launch capability. Virgin Orbit has already launched satellites from the United States and wants to establish itself as a company that can do so from anywhere that a 747 can land.
“Just like in the U.S., it is a combination of commercial, civil and national security coming together that makes a space program or a space launch program successful,” he said in an interview.
Mr. Hart said the payload on the Virgin Orbit rocket, which includes commercial satellites as well as devices sponsored by Britain’s Ministry of Defense and the United States Naval Research Laboratory, was an “excellent model” for the combined funding sources needed to sustain the expense of a full-service space program.
Britain already has a sizable satellite industry and has been one of the leaders in designing and making the shoe-box sized, relatively cheap devices that are becoming increasingly important for communications, surveillance and other purposes.
The government figures that having the capability to send these satellites into orbit should give Britain a further edge. With modest funding, the government has encouraged receptive local authorities like the one in Cornwall and others in Scotland to develop sites suitable for either vertical rocket launches or jumbo jets being used as launch platforms.
Ms. Jones, of Rhea Group, said the prospect of having launch sites in Britain encouraged her employers, a private Belgium-based company, to have their device built at Harwell, near Oxford, where there is a cluster of space companies.
Ms. Jones’s satellite is the type that analysts say represents a growth area for the space industry. The box, with dimensions of about a foot by four inches by four inches, cost less than $1 million to build and is intended to be the first of a string of orbital vehicles that could be called into service if a cyber attack or a technical problem knocked out the GPS navigation system.