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Richard Branson's UK space launch delayed again – 24 hours after it got the go-ahead

Sir Richard Branson attends the HBO docuseries "Branson" premiere at the HBO Screening Room on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022 - Christopher Smith/Invision
Sir Richard Branson attends the HBO docuseries "Branson" premiere at the HBO Screening Room on Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2022 - Christopher Smith/Invision

Sir Richard Branson’s hopes of launching Britain’s first space mission this year are fading after Virgin Orbit was forced to delay next week’s take-off – just 24 hours after confirming it was going ahead.

Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit chief executive, said the Civil Aviation Authority’s refusal to give the company an operating licence meant the launch would be delayed again.

Britain’s first ever space mission was scheduled to take place on the night of December 14, Virgin Orbit announced yesterday.

But Virgin Orbit was forced to row back on its plans within hours. The company will now "retarget launch for the coming weeks".

The 'Cosmic Girl' Boeing Co. 747 launch aircraft, operated by Virgin Orbit Holdings Inc., on the tarmac at Spaceport Cornwall, located at Cornwall Airport Newquay, in Newquay, UK, on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022 - James Beck/Bloomberg
The 'Cosmic Girl' Boeing Co. 747 launch aircraft, operated by Virgin Orbit Holdings Inc., on the tarmac at Spaceport Cornwall, located at Cornwall Airport Newquay, in Newquay, UK, on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2022 - James Beck/Bloomberg

Mr Hart said: “With licences still outstanding for the launch itself and for the satellites within the payload, additional technical work needed to establish system health and readiness, and a very limited available launch window of only two days, we have determined that it is prudent to retarget launch for the coming weeks to allow ourselves and our stakeholders time to pave the way for full mission success.”

Sir Richard’s dream of masterminding Britain’s inaugural space launch has been racked by delays.

It was initially scheduled for the summer to coincide with the late Queen Elizabeth II’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations. It was then pushed back to September and delayed further until November.

Sir Richard let slip some of his frustration about the delays during an interview with the Telegraph in November. “I can’t talk how I’d like to talk,” he said, adding that “bureaucracy… can take time.”

Virgin Orbit plans to fly a converted Boeing 747, called Cosmic Girl, from Spaceport Cornwall to a height of 35,000 feet above the ocean, before a rocket, LauncherOne, is dropped from under its wing and blasts into orbit.

A launch from British soil would come more than 50 years after the British-made Black Arrow rocket reached orbit from the Australian outback.

A two-hour window of between 10:16pm and 11.45pm on Dec 14 had been identified on Wednesday in an official announcement to the aviation industry.

Mr Hart said: “At this time, all our customer spacecraft have been encapsulated into our payload assembly and into our LauncherOne rocket, which is now mated to our carrier aircraft on the Echo Apron at Spaceport Cornwall. Through hard work and close coordination with all our launch partners, a commercial airport has been transformed into western Europe’s first orbital spaceport.

“All stakeholders continue to drive in a coordinated effort towards a historic milestone, which will soon establish the UK as the first nation with the capability to launch to orbit from western Europe.”