Mariners in Cork and Kerry have been warned about the possibility of debris falling from the sky tonight off the south-west coast of Ireland.
The warning, issued by the Department of Transport, comes into effect between 10pm and 1am and is in connection with a mid-air launch of a satellite-carrying rocket from Virgin Orbit.
The rocket will be fired into the sky from a 747 jet around midnight and head in a southerly direction.
The warning from the department explains: "The Department of Transport has been advised that Virgin Orbit plans to establish a space launch hazard area off the South-West Coast of Ireland on January 9 2023 and January 10 2023 between the hours of 22:00 and 01:00.
"Virgin Orbit LLC will be conducting a satellite launch attempt originating from the UK’s Spaceport Cornwall. The rocket launch vehicle will be deployed by air over water near the Southern Coast of Ireland.
"Where the launch attempt proceeds as planned, no debris will enter the marine hazard area set out in the co-ordinates below and the map at Appendix 1. However, there is a low probability for the vehicle to produce dangerous debris if a mishap were to occur.
"Virgin Orbit will be taking every step possible to monitor the area during the launch attempt. Mariners are advised to report any debris or pollution sightings as a result of any mishap due to launch." it concludes.
If all goes to plan the launch will take place at Spaceport Cornwall as part of the Start Me Up mission. Named in tribute to The Rolling Stones' 1981 hit, the mission involves a repurposed Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 aircraft and Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket.
The 747, dubbed Cosmic Girl, will take off horizontally from the new facility while carrying the rocket. Around an hour into the flight the rocket will ignite its engine and take multiple small satellites, with a variety of civil and defence applications, into orbit. They will be the first satellites launched into space from Europe.
However, Patrick Murphy of the Irish South & West Fish Producers Association told RTE'sthat "'if a mishap were to happen'" that means "that it explodes and everything that's up there comes flying down on top of heads of people in the area."
Mr Murphy said the Irish fishing fleet and the environment need to be offered greater protection. "We need it from our Ministers - Eamon Ryan who is a Green Minister - to allow this to continue - a rocket up into the air, burning carbon - it flies in the face of the message being given out."
He said the rocket's launch will impact on the ability of members of the South & West Fish Producers Association to make a living. "Do they expect us to steam for miles - to steam this area would take half a day, so you're out of the area in case something might happen. It's not just about tonight, it's on for the 13th January or the 15th again, there's no clear communications on this.
"You wouldn't get permission to launch this over Dublin or any other populated area, there's areas of the sea that they could do this as well - out into international waters. You don't put people's lives in danger when you have an alternative and we believe there's an alternative," Mr Murphy said.
"This is dangerous, If it explodes - any marine traffic is at risk. There's a lot of traffic out there, a lot of boats. You can't just put down the shoe and go 50 miles to your left or right, we have boats that fish and shoot the nets for six hours at a time. This will really discommode boats
Meanwhile, the National Space Centre at Elfordstown EarthStation near Midleton in Cork, will be offering ground control data in support of the mission.
“We are thrilled to be working with our partners Leafspace and Goonhilly to provide TT&C for this historic launch from Cornwall,” said CEO Rory Fitzpatrick.
“Interestingly, while it will be a first for the British, it will be the third time we’ve provided ground control data for a space launch at the NSC. We’ve previously supported RocketLabs’ Electron rocket launch and we also provided groundstation services for South Korea’s recent Nuri rocket launch for Contec.”
Members of the public keen to witness the spectacle may get a glimpse from Cork or Kerry if they look to the southern horizon just after launch.
It was originally hoped the launch could take place before Christmas but owing to technical and regulatory issues it had to be pushed into 2023.