The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson’s company demonstrated it had “taken all reasonable steps to ensure safety risks arising from launch activities are as low as reasonably practicable”.
Virgin Orbit is planning a launch from Spaceport Cornwall at Cornwall Airport Newquay in the coming weeks.
The mission named Start Me Up in tribute to rock band The Rolling Stones will involve a repurposed Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 aircraft and Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket.
The 747 will take off horizontally from the new facility at Cornwall Airport Newquay while carrying the rocket, before releasing it at 35,000ft over the Atlantic Ocean to the south of Ireland.
The plane will return to the spaceport, while the rocket will ignite its engine and take multiple small satellites into orbit with a variety of civil and defence applications. They will be the first satellites launched into space from Europe.
Satellites produced in the UK have previously needed to be sent to foreign spaceports to get them into space.
CAA director for space regulation Tim Johnson said: “This is another major milestone in enabling the very first orbital space launch from UK shores, and these licences will assist Virgin Orbit with their final preparations for launch.
“Effective licensing forms an integral part of UK space activity, and with public safety at the heart of our decision making we’ve worked with Virgin Orbit to assess their applications and issue licences within our expected timelines.”
Spaceport Cornwall is one of seven spaceports being developed across Britain.
The first vertical space launch is expected to take place next year from the planned SaxaVord Spaceport on Unst in Shetland.
A public consultation on the environmental effects of the spaceport was launched by the CAA last month.
The locations for four other proposed spaceports in Scotland are: the A’ Mhoine peninsula in Sutherland; Prestwick in South Ayrshire; Campbeltown in Argyll and Bute; and North Uist in the Outer Hebrides.
Virgin Orbit chief executive Dan Hart said: “Receiving Virgin Orbit’s range and launch licences takes us one step closer to the first satellite launch take-off from UK soil.
“This is a major milestone for the CAA and represents the successful completion of an enormous effort, which has included the construction of new regulations, new processes and new teams.
“With our partners at the UK Civil Aviation Authority, Spaceport Cornwall, UK Space Agency and our payload customers, together we are progressing towards the first launch from Cornwall – keeping a strong focus on a safe and successful mission for all.”
Transport secretary Mark Harper said: “Today we are one step closer to opening the UK’s galactic gateway, with Virgin Orbit receiving an historic first licence to allow the UK’s first ever spaceflight launch.
“The planned launch reinforces our position as a leading space nation as we look to the future of spaceflight, which can spur growth and innovation across the sector, as well as creating thousands of jobs and apprenticeships.”
The CAA said it awarded the licences within 15 months of receiving evidence from Virgin Orbit about its plans.
The regulator’s estimated time for delivering spaceflight licences is between nine and 18 months.