Sunday, 8 January 2023

A first launch to orbit from Northwest Europe on January 9 [UPDATED]

click image to enlarge


If there are no launch delays, Virgin Orbit will conduct the first ever launch to orbit from Northwest Europe on January 9.

Dubbed "Start Me Up", the launch will be carried out above the Atlantic just southwest or Ireland. The two-hour launch window opens at 22:16 UTC (23:16 CET) on January 9, 2023.

The launch is airborne, and the launch vehicle is a LauncherOne rocket carried by the Boeing 747-400 'Cosmic Girl' , which will depart from Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay, UK and then fly to the launch zone southwest of Ireland.

The launch will be into a ~97.6 degree inclined, ~550 km Sun-Synchronous orbit. I estimate this approximate initial orbit:

START ME UP                      for launch on 9 Jan 2023 22:16:00 UT
1 70000U 23999A   23009.92777778  .00000000  00000-0  00000-0 0    00
2 70000 097.6000 244.4122 0003607 140.5188 325.8313 15.04676410    02

[Note added: it appears that the 22:16 UTC time is actually the time the aircraft departs from Spaceport Cornwall. Launch will be about an hour later. The elset above can be adjusted to the actual launch time using my TLEfromProxy software]

The map below shows the launch trajectory, and the two hazard zones published for this launch (Maritime Navigational Warnings HYDROLANT 33/23 and HYDROLANT 37/23). The first stage will splash down some 400 km out of the coast of Portugal. 

click map to enlarge

Unfortunately, a launch at this time of the night in this season means that the initial launch trajectory will not be sun-illuminated, which in turn means that any exhaust clouds produced will not be visible in the sky.

However, for the duration of the engine burns itself, the rocket might be visible on ascend to orbit as a moving dot of light (disappearing as soon as the rocket engines cut off, some 9 minutes after launch). 

Southwest Ireland, being closest to the launch area, has the best viewing opportunity: the rocket will move from the southwest to south-southwest, roughly between azimuth 240 and 200 degrees, and reach a maximum sky elevation of about 35 degrees near azimuth 220 degrees (southwest), based on an estimate of the launch trajectory.

The rocket engine burn might also be visible from the southwest of the UK (particularly Wales and Cornwall) and the Atlantic coast of France (Bretagne), as well as NW Spain and Portugal. I have no idea how bright it may be though, i.e. I have no idea whether it will or will not be visible by the naked eye.

From Cornwall it might reach a maximum elevation of  25-30 degrees in the SW, and from Bretagne in France some 20 degrees due West. From NW Spain, the rocket might rise up to almost 50 degrees maximum elevation due West before burning out.

From the Netherlands, where I live, the launch in theory could be visible, but the rocket will stay below 12 degrees maximum sky elevation.  

Below is a diagram of the approximate trajectory I predict as seen from the SW Dutch coast (Zeeland Province, some 1000+ km from the launch area): times given are in minutes after launch.

click diagram to enlarge


"Start Me Up" will launch seven nine  eight payloads, including several payloads for the UK Ministry of Defense. Virgin Orbit has conducted two four earlier successfull launches so far.

click map to enlarge


The launch happened at 23:09 UTC but unfortunately failed to reach orbit because of an anomaly with the second stage. For more information, including a video of the reentry as observed from Lanzarote in the Canaray Islands, see this follow-up post.

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