Historic UK satellite launch may whet military appetite

By Tim Heffer

(Reuters) – A mobile air-launched rocket system to be used in Britain’s first home satellite launch could sow the seeds of a globally dispersed rapid response capability to put extra eyes in space in times of war said executives and analysts.

Virgin Orbit, partly owned by billionaire Richard Branson, plans to launch nine satellites from a LauncherOne rocket attached under the wing of a modified Boeing 747, which will fly from a new spaceport in Cornwall on Monday.

Except for delays, it will be the first time that a satellite leaves Western European soil.

For now, the focus is on commercial payloads from companies like Space Forge, which is developing in-orbit manufacturing.

But many also see the launch as a model for faster launches of limited satellite capacity for tactical military purposes, in what planners call a “Response Launch.”

“Ukraine woke up the world in many ways,” Virgin Orbit chief executive Dan Hart told a news conference in south-west England on Sunday.

“Clearly, there is hope for a pan-European collaboration as well as a US collaboration… and that we have responsiveness so that if something happens in the world, we can get assets there immediately,” he said in the pre-launch. briefing, monitored online.

Virgin Orbit said last year that Britain’s Royal Air Force was conducting exercises to demonstrate the value of “responsive launch.”

Britain had a brief foray into space launch activities in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when its Black Arrow rocket was written off after only one successful mission.

The four launches of the rocket took place in Australia in an era when commercial satellites hardly existed.

Now constellations of miniaturized satellites are leading an explosion of commercial activity in low-Earth orbit.


Putting small satellites into low orbit on short notice would do little more than fill temporary gaps in the coverage of large spy satellites, but experts say the technology has dual civilian and military potential and could spread the costs.

“It gives you greater resilience or redundancy or duality of systems, whether it’s for position, navigation and time or faster access…as we’ve seen in Ukraine,” said Ian Annett, deputy chief executive of the Kingdom’s Space Agency. United on Sunday. instructions.

“It’s a natural transition that helps us build security capabilities, but also, for the government, it keeps costs down while providing business opportunities.”

Elon Musk’s SpaceX activated its Starlink constellation over Ukraine after the invasion of Russia last February. Its communication links have been used by civilians and by the Ukrainian military.

Luxembourg said in October that it had signed a letter of intent with Virgin Orbit to develop a “rapid and flexible response to different threats” for NATO and other allies.

Its Ministry of Defense has called for “new, more flexible and agile satellite launch procedures and techniques from Europe.”

Britain’s own space roadmap for 2022-25 calls for dual-use capabilities in Earth observation and space domain awareness.

Virgin Orbit is also talking to Japan and Australia.

However, questions remain about how quickly the mobile launch concept could reach actual budgets, which are dwarfed by US space spending.

“Everyone is playing military space as the next big thing,” said Francis Tusa, a UK-based defense analyst. “But defense ministries have eyes bigger than their stomachs.”

The system’s liquid propellant and final rocket assembly also require some local infrastructure, and Europe’s crowded airspace has created significant regulatory hurdles.

“At the moment, it’s a little bit bigger on the commercial side, but we see the defense and national security side grow, so I think in this steady state, it will probably end up being 50/50,” Hart told Reuters.

(Reporting by Tim Hepher; Additional reporting by Joey Roulette; Editing by David Holmes)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *