Photo: Ben Birchall/PA
Like every expectant mother, my bag was ready and I was waiting by the front door. In situations like these, you never know when things will start, so it’s best to be prepared. The birth I was expecting wasn’t a child, it was the UK’s new launch capability to get baby satellites (known as microsatellites) right here from Britain into space.
As a space scientist and satellite manufacturer, I know the frustration of a launch. Here in the UK we have developed an industry in small dynamic satellites. Microsatellites, unlike their larger brethren, can be rotated rapidly. I’ve spent some of my career working on the James Webb space telescope, a fantastic high-tech product designed to give us incredible new insights into the early universe and how it evolved. But it took nearly 40 years to develop from concept to launch.
With micro satellites, you can develop an idea and create a concept in a short time. A design comes together through several iterations. After some modeling and clearing up the confusion, we start building the thing. And this can be done in a small laboratory or even a workshop. After rigorous testing, it could be ready to launch just months after the initial idea.
But that’s when the real problems begin. In the past, launching often meant sending our small satellite to a large facility overseas and boarding a rocket carrying a much larger cargo and filling in gaps not used by the main passenger. But it is the large cargo that decides when to launch the rocket. Thus, after all this work to produce the microsatellite, it can be grounded for months or even years before it goes into space.
Enter the game-changing LauncherOne, the vehicle developed and flown by Virgin Orbit. This system is designed to launch microsatellites. Suspended from the underside of a jumbo jet, an ascending rocket into the atmosphere is then released to power toward orbit. The launcher can take off from a place like Cornwall instead of traveling halfway around the world.
I wanted to be there the night it was launched, when the first UK satellites were going to launch right here from Britain. I was present when the phone came to confirm that an attempt was imminent; I grabbed my bag and set off. I arrived at Newquay airport early and was on my way to Cornwall Spaceport, where a jumbo jet named Cosmic Girl carrying the LauncherOne rocket would take off.
The rocket would be released over the clear waters between Ireland and Spain, where it could ignite safely. The weather for Cornwall in January was predictably severe; Severe cold with strong winds and heavy downpours. The launch seemed to be canceled before it even took off from the ground. And while I won’t see the rocket fire and travel into space from my vantage point at Newquay airport, it was important to me to be a part of the crowd watching British space history be made.
As the night progressed, the wind stopped and the torrential rains stopped. I could see several planets and stars in the clear sky. Maybe the launch would continue.
We soon heard that LauncherOne was being fueled at the track. The launch continued. The Cosmic Girl soared into the sky, and I, along with thousands of others, gathered around the large outer screen to watch the progress of what we could no longer see directly in front of us. Everything went smoothly from takeoff to ignition. But then we started hearing the word “anomaly”, with almost no tonal change. The rocket encountered some difficulties and was unable to enter orbit. The mood of the crowd turned from joy to disappointment.
Despite this setback, I am still proud of all that has been achieved. Taking things into space is a challenging experience. The learning curve for any new technology is steep. Airplanes faced similar challenges in those days, but perseverance allowed us to overcome these obstacles.
We often focus on winning rather than the process that got us there. I know that most of my work as an experimental scientist has not been successful. Following a process can lead to a dead end. Little success happens immediately; we often only succeed through failures, we learn lessons as we progress.
It may take some time before we find out what went wrong on Monday night, but we’re safe as we know most things went well. This means that next time we will get closer to our goal. The next morning, as I was leaving my Newquay flat, tired and a little dejected, carrying some recycling to the trash cans, I ran into one of the occupants. We talked and he asked me why I was in Cornwall. I explained that I was there for the rocket launch. His face fell and he said, “What a waste of money.”
Even though I was tired, I had to do it. I gave a 30-second elevator speech explaining that the launch was taking technology into space that could help us all, from tiny observing satellites that help us understand climate change to developing new manufacturing techniques in space that help on Earth.
He looked at me for a moment and said, “You know, you’ve changed my mind on this.” His reaction may have been a quick attempt to get rid of the oddly intense woman standing in front of him, but deep down I hope he truly saw the benefits it would bring for everyone. And by talking out loud about its benefits, I felt better knowing we’d get there and it would be worth it in the end.
• Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock is a space scientist and host of BBC’s The Sky at Night.