The most common warnings that boaters receive, by far, are related to either a) weather, or 2) navigation.
Only a noob would head out without checking and double checking the weather report. And any boater traveling in a new locale always checks the available resources for information about hazards. That’s why we have paper maps and mobile apps, after all.
In the case of Irish boaters this week, they received a warning that definitely raised a few eyebrows.
“Watch out for rocket debris.”
The Irish Department of Transport issued the warning early Monday in anticipation of the Virgin Orbit launch taking place in Cornwall, England. The launch involved a rocket attached to a repurposed Boeing 747 jet owned by billionaire Richard Branson, who also owns the U.S. based Virgin Orbit company.
Seafarers were told to avoid a pre-determined “hazard area” off the southern coast. After a delay on Monday morning due to an ‘anomaly,’ the launch was pushed over to Tuesday, where it was successful, albeit with some added anxiety.
The mission was organized in collaboration with the U.K. Space Agency, the Royal Air Force, Virgin Orbit, and the Cornwall Council.
The warning specifically warned boaters about a low possibility of falling debris in the event of a ‘mishap.’
The potential debris area was marked on charts in the North Atlantic off the southern coast of Kerry and Cork counties.
“Where the launch attempt proceeds as planned, no debris will enter the marine hazard area,” the Irish government stated. “However, there is a low probability for the vehicle to produce dangerous debris if a mishap were to occur.”
The event marked the first orbital launch in Britain’s history and a major milestone for the emerging U.K. space industry.
The Virgin Orbit jet, nicknamed Cosmic Girl, followed a flight path which saw it reach an altitude of 35,000 feet (10,600 m) over the Atlantic before releasing its rocket within the designated launch zone. From there the rocket followed a secondary path of its own before releasing 9 mini-satellites into orbit more than 500 km (310 miles) above Earth.
The jet took about an hour to travel from Newquay Airport in Cornwall, at which point the rocket disengaged and headed south while gaining altitude as it headed into orbit.
The Irish government also asked boaters to report any debris sightings to be tracked and investigated, although it appears no debris broke loose.
In an article with the BBC, science correspondent Jonathan Amos broke down the route further, saying “(i)t will go past the coasts of Spain and Portugal. It’ll climb high into the sky and it will zoom around the Earth, past Antarctica, come up the other side and it will drop off those nine satellites high above the planet.”
According to journalist and commentator Leo Enright on the Good Morning Ulster program, the satellites themselves are a combination of both military and civilian hardware designed by Virgin Orbit.
“They needed permission from the Irish of course because they’re launching out of Irish-controlled air space.
“But they also needed permission from the Portuguese because the rocket motor is going to fall into the Atlantic Ocean off Portugal.”
Some of the satellites are part of the U.K’s defense monitoring program, and others are owned by private businesses working in navigational technology.
For all the boaters, if you do encounter something as unusual as rocket debris while on the water, it’s important to know how to make an emergency call.