Britain issued its first spaceport licence on Wednesday, paving the way for the country’s maiden satellite launch later this year as it looks to become Europe’s leading space industry player.
The licence was issued to Spaceport Cornwall.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the UK regulator, also said it was in “very advanced stages” with Virgin Orbit, Richard Branson’s small satellite service provider, for additional licences needed for the launch itself.
The issue of the spaceport licence to the site in Newquay, Cornwall, puts Britain one step closer to becoming the first country in Europe from where satellites can be launched into orbit.
The first UK launch is expected before the end of the year, the UK Space Agency’s deputy chief executive, Ian Annett, said in a CAA statement.
Virgin Orbit plans to use a modified Boeing 747 with a rocket attached under its wing. Once in flight, the rocket will set off, taking small satellites into orbit in what is known as a horizontal launch.
Britain has a large space industry employing 47,000 people who build more satellites than anywhere outside the United States. Adding launch capabilities will boost the economy by 3.8 billion pounds ($4.5 billion) over the next decade, the government estimates.
The CAA said Spaceport Cornwall had demonstrated it had met the appropriate safety, security and environmental requirements to become a spaceport.
“This is another major milestone to enable this country to become a leading launch nation,” CAA Chief Executive Richard Moriarty said.
Virgin Orbit is now hoping to gain regulatory approval for launch and range licences in a matter of weeks, which would give it the green light for the first launch from Cornwall, in south west England.
Billionaire Branson, the founder of the Virgin Atlantic airline, said in October that Virgin Orbit would carry out its first launch from European soil within six weeks.
The CAA is also processing applications from a range of other spaceports and operators, it said, and has started an environmental consultation for SaxaVord Spaceport in the Shetland Islands, north of Scotland.
(Reporting by Sarah Young; Editing by Mark Potter)