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UK Space Agency will provide $9.5 million to Virgin Orbit for Cornwall spaceport

Darrell Etherington

Richard Branson's small satellite launch company Virgin Orbit announced today that it has secured final approval on a £7.35 million ($9.5 million) grant from the U.K. Space Agency (UKSA), funds which will be used by Virgin Orbit to help set up its Cornwall-based launch facility. Virgin Orbit has been putting together funding and securing regulatory approvals to establish the new launch site, which will be called Spaceport Cornwall and which will be part of Cornwall Airport Newquay.

This site will provide a U.K.-based launch site for Virgin Orbit, giving the U.K. domestic launch capabilities and providing a way for U.K.-based entities to do everything from build to launch within the country. The company is also working on developing a movable "ground operating system," which is essentially a series of towable trailers that Virgin Orbit can use to house ground crews that will support the missions of its LauncherOne vehicle, which is the airborne launch platform it's developing for high-altitude small-payload launches.

Virgin Orbit is one of two Virgin-branded space companies founded by billionaire Branson. The other, Virgin Galactic, just went public through an arrangement with Social Capital Hedosophia, a funding vehicle set up by Chamath Palihapitiya and partners specifically for the purpose. Both companies make use of modified terrestrial aircraft used as high-altitude launch platforms for vehicles designed to then reach space. Virgin Orbit's launch system supports small satellites aiming for orbit, whereas Virgin Galactic's launch vehicle is designed to propel a sub-orbital passenger vehicle just beyond the edge of Earth's atmosphere.

Orbit's commercial goals give it a clearer path to revenue generation and profitability, since other companies, including SpaceX and Rocket Lab, have built businesses on the demand for launch capabilities, with small satellites making up a big percentage of that mix. If all proceeds as planned with Spaceport Cornwall, the company hopes to be launching payloads from the location as early as 2021.