Cornwall's surfing capital is about to become the U.K. space capital. Here's what that looks like.

The lively town of Newquay is best known for its beaches. But something altogether loftier is about to blast off.

By Huw James
Published 19 Dec 2022, 11:51 GMT
The nosecone of the Launcher One rocket is wheeled into SpacePort Cornwall's hangar at Newquay Airport, ...

The nosecone of the Launcher One rocket is wheeled into SpacePort Cornwall's hangar at Newquay Airport, October 2022. The facility is set to be the first U.K. site to  launch an orbital payload. 

Photograph by Spaceport Cornwall

The population of the small Cornish town of Newquay is sometimes 20,000 and sometimes 100,000, depending on the season. For over a century it’s been considered a British Isles beauty spot and as such is well-established – infamous even – as a destination for tourists.

It’s also considered by some as the perfect place for the U.K.’s first space port. The facility in question, Spaceport Cornwall, received its launch license in October 2022 and is effectively open for business. So on top of great beaches, natural beauty and a pleasing climate Newquay seems set to add another string to its bristling bow of assets: the site of the U.K.'s first satellite launch from home turf. It's happening soon, too: its makers hope its first orbital payload will blast off before the end of 2022. 

Whilst wandering the windswept walkways of Newquay’s coastal path, or surfing in the famous swells of its seas, one might be forgiven for thinking that the Cornish town has always relied on its tourism to get by, but that’s not the case. A rich heritage of managing and utilising its natural resources are built into it and its surrounding towns: Mining, knitting, and fishing have all played a part in the success of Newquay. It just so happens its next local industry may be a literal step out of this world.

Newquay's Towan beach in summer guise as a beauty spot. The Cornish town has long been a surfing Mecca and a holiday destination. 

Photograph by robertharding / Alamy

Construction workers adjust the sign on the hangar at SpacePort Cornwall. Based at Newquay Airport, the facility received the UK's first ever launch license in October 2022. 

Photograph by Huw James

An inglorious history

The U.K. has hasn’t had the best reputation when it comes to space flight. For one reason or another, this collection of nations never properly developed a space programme that would efficiently put satellites in space, let alone humans. That’s not to say no attempts have been made to push the space agenda; The British Interplanetary Society was founded in 1933 and lobbied hard for a UK presence in space, including the moon.

Early collaborative satellite programmes such as Ariel and Prospero – the latter of which launched, successfully, from Australia in 1971 – showed that talent and will was there. And military and intelligence agencies have long thought the U.K. should have its own satellites. But now, politicians and the public sector seem to be taking space more seriously, by launching (pun intended) the UK’s first ever National Space Strategy.

Virgin Orbit's Launcher One rocket is unloaded from a C-17 transporter plane for assembly. The rocket was manufactured in California and has had five successful launches from Mojave Air and Space Port.   

Photograph by Spaceport Cornwall

The Launcher One rocket, with its payload of satellites, will be attached to the underside of a Boeing 747-400 jet, which will ascend to 35,000ft over the Atlantic – from where the rocket will be released, ignited and will begin its journey to orbit. This form of horizontal launch requires no additional infrastructure than that of a typical airport – albeit one with a long runway.   

Photograph by Spaceport Cornwall

The U.K. manufactures and tests a large number of the world's satellites but until launch day, won’t have launched a single one from its native turf. Science and Innovation Minister George Freeman has said: “As we enter an exciting new space age, we have bold ambitions for the UK to be at the vanguard of this industry in our role as a science superpower – whether it’s launching the first satellite from British soil, or leading major international space missions to help combat climate change.” 

In a world where we rely more and more on space technology, and in one where the U.K. has recently lost access to the main satellite positioning system it worked on and contributed £1.2 billion to (Galileo), maybe space is more important than many realise. And while this inaugural space port's siting is unexpected, it clearly has its merits.

“The launch itself, as exciting as it is, is a magnet – a catalyst to make all the other things happen.”

Melissa Thorpe

Melissa Thorpe, SpacePort Cornwall's CEO. 

Photograph by Huw James

A matter of location

Depending on where you want your satellite to end up in space, there are a variety of companies and locations that will help it get there. You could use SpaceX or Blue Origin in Florida, USA. Or multiple spaceports in Russia, India, or China. But in continental Europe, options are few.

The main reason Europe is a spaceport desert is down to the mechanics of orbiting our planet. If you want to put something into orbit, the best place to do it is low-latitude destinations, near the equator. If you launch in an easterly direction from a site relatively close to the equator, you can use the rotational speed of the Earth to help you get into space. You also end up in an advantageous orientation for the popular geostationary orbit. Another good reason Europe hasn’t had spaceports in the past as there are so many populated areas. If you launch a rocket east from almost anywhere in Europe, the flight path will travel over a populated area and the chance of rocket debris falling on a town or city becomes very high.

The Launcher One rocket in the payload bay of a C-17 transporter. Britain has launched a satellite before; just never from domestic soil. The Cornwall SpacePort is one of seven being constructed across the UK, with a mixture of horizontal and vertical launch facilities. 

Photograph by Spaceport Cornwall

Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay gets around these problems in a novel way. In collaboration with Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit, the launches from Cornwall Newquay Airport will be “horizontal launches” from a Boeing 747. This site has one of the longest runways in the UK, uncongested airspace, and relatively few people in the launch path.

The orbit that Launcher One will put its satellites into is also different. GEO (geostationary satellites) orbit around the equator at an altitude of around 35,000km, and usually at the same speed as the Earth rotates, so they are effectively in the same position above the surface at all times. LEO (low earth orbit) is what will be utilised by Cornwall’s space port, and is a much closer and faster orbit around our planet that allows the deployment of many different types of satellites for many different uses. The range of LEO satellites can be from 160km above the planet to 2000km.

Space for good?

The space industry is becoming increasingly fascinating for businesses. We can now launch satellites into space for less money, more quickly and safer than ever before. That does mean that it’s accessible to a lot more organisations, and potential controversies. The SpaceX project StarLink has come under much scrutiny, for instance, for its aims to put 42,000 satellites in space for its private telecommunication company.

But the number of satellites needed in space is rising. To meet that demand it’s estimated that by 2030, that number could jump from 5000 today, to over 100,000. The global space sector itself is projected to be worth £490 billion by 2030. The U.K. is trying to capture 10% of that global space sector by 2030; A large amount of that will be through the spaceport in Cornwall, though six other sites are in development in various locations up Britain's west coast, principally in Scotland. The launch market itself is due to be worth £10 billion over the next decade.

The modified Virgin Boeing 747-400 launch jet, nicknamed 'Cosmic Girl'. 

Photograph by Spaceport Cornwall

Melissa Thorpe is Spaceport Cornwall’s CEO. “The launch itself, as exciting as it is, is a magnet – a catalyst to make all the other things happen”, she says. “Again, this facility, it's not just for Virgin. Other businesses are going to come and use it. We have an adjacent building we haven’t even built yet that’s [already] full. Not necessarily just space businesses, but businesses that might want to use the technologies of satellites.”

But all this business and profit could come at a cost. There has been some valid opposition to the space industry as a whole. Space junk is becoming a wider-known term and refers to the amount of potentially hazardous debris that we leave in space – from decommissioned satellites to parts of launchers.

Then there’s the ground-based infrastructure. Making satellites and shipping them across the globe will obviously have an impact, as will the running of a spaceport. A study undertaken by the University of Exeter, however, showed that the spaceport does not significantly change the overall carbon emissions of the area around Cornwall. The study was conducted by Dr Xiaoyu Yan, Senior Lecturer in Energy and Environment at the University of Exeter and part of its Environment and Sustainability Institute team based at Penryn in Cornwall. “This report provides a rigorous assessment of the direct greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from planned launches and ancillary activities associated with launch missions at the proposed spaceport,” Yan wrote, concluding that, “overall, the proposed Spaceport Cornwall is not expected to impact significantly on Cornwall’s total GHG emissions and efforts in combating climate change.”

Rockets 101

The launch window itself opened October 29th. When the moment arrives, the Boeing 747, named Cosmic Girl, and the Launcher One rocket will be the focus of the action. The rocket will contain several satellites that do everything from improve navigation to helping manufacture special materials in the unique environment of space. Squadron Leader Matthew Stannard, Chief Pilot for Virgin Orbit said: “It feels amazing. We are weeks away now from the first UK launch at Spaceport Cornwall so it’s all very real.”

Once given the go, the pilot will fly the 747/rocket combo out over the Atlantic ocean where the plane will ascend to 10,000m (35,000ft) before releasing the LauncherOne rocket for its climb into space. At that time, the NewtonThree Engine fires on the first stage of the rocket. As soon as the first stage finishes, stage two will ignite, taking the satellites into orbit. Years of preparation and tens of thousands of work hours have gone into getting this launch right.

A lone surfer walks along Newquay's Fistral Beach. Supporters hope the addition of space industry to the West Country county will add a further lucrative string to the region's economy. 

Photograph by Loop Images Ltd / Alamy

The ‘next industrial revolution’

But the space port and everything around it is more than what it seems on the surface. Test equipment from Welsh-based manufacturer SpaceForge – which intends to leverage the unique environment of space for manufacturing high-precision items such as pharmaceuticals and semiconductors at extremely low temperatures and in microgravity – will be going up on Launcher One.

Josh Western founded SpaceForge with Andrew Bacon. “We know that change is coming, but nobody's prepared for it. Until that first person brought a couple of sticks together and invented fire, everybody spent all of their time in the gloom,” Western told National Geographic (UK). “Space manufacturing is today's equivalent of that moment. It's the next industrial revolution, but it's not one that's taking place on Earth. Our future is in space. And Europe does need a safe, reliable platform to send satellites up. Not only new ones, but to replace damaged ones that we rely on for travel, entertainment, tracking, science and more.”

The motto of Spaceport Cornwall is “Space for Good”. And the ethos of the spaceport is to include the community and people of Cornwall in the project; on the second launch there will even be a satellite to monitor the health of Cornwall’s land and sea. At Cornwall Airport Newquay there’ll obviously be the space port, but also mission control facilities and other infrastructure. “This has the possibility to bring a wealth of value to Cornwall. It already provides 150 direct jobs – and further jobs in other non-direct industries are supported. And when big ambitions are reached for, we see other benefits too,” says CEO Melissa Thorpe. “After the Apollo missions, the amount of people studying sciences to a high level went up.”

That’s not to say the Spaceport Cornwall will be launching humans to the Moon, Thorpe stresses. “But when students can see what is achievable, they often reach to achieve it.”


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