Virgin Orbit launch: First UK bid to send rocket into space ends in failure

UK Space Agency says second stage of mission suffered an 'anomaly' as team vows to try again in next 12 months

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An attempt to make European history by launching a rocket into orbit from UK soil has ended in failure after an “anomaly” during the flight.

After taking off from Cornwall, the Virgin Orbit plane flew to 10,600km over the Atlantic where it jettisoned the rocket containing nine small satellites towards space. The LauncherOne rocket successfully deployed and ignited its main engine but before the next stage a fault occurred.

Organisers of the Start Me Up mission said the rocket, with a variety of civil and defence applications, failed to orbit. The team hopes to try again in the next 12 months.

Matt Archer, from the UK Space Agency, said the second stage of the launch suffered an “anomaly”, the cause of which was under investigation.

“In effect the rocket has not reached the required altitude to maintain its orbit or deploy the satellites and therefore the mission was unsuccessful,” Mr Archer said at Spaceport Cornwall.

The events were relayed to the public in real time as the company switched out its social media posts. “As we find out more, we’re removing our previous tweet about reaching orbit. We’ll share more info when we can,” Virgin Orbit tweeted.

While engineers tried to establish what went wrong, the plane returned to Spaceport Cornwall safely.

“Over the coming days, there will be an investigation involving the government and various bodies, including Virgin Orbit, to make sure we understand what caused that technical failure and again we’ll work out what to do next following that.

“At this stage there’s not a lot more that I can say. We don’t know what caused the anomaly and the data will be ongoing from now, but we’ve achieved the launch.

“We set out to do that and create the conditions for horizontal launches at Spaceport Cornwall.

“So lots of positive things have been achieved and while it is obviously disappointing not to achieve orbit we will continue to press on.

“The launch is really important for our sector and we’ll get there in the end.”

He said part of the rocket was likely to burn up on re-entry to Earth but was projected to land over water.

“The trajectory puts it over main bodies of water, so it’s completely safe in that regard,” Mr Archer said.

Asked what he thought it meant for the UK space industry, he replied: “I think it’s says that space is hard and we knew this had a risk of failure.

“We knew when we started the project it had high risk and launches don’t always work.

“We saw the same before Christmas with the Vega-C rocket and again we’ll pick up with Virgin Orbit and think about what happens next.”

Spaceport Cornwall prepares for launch — in pictures

Virgin Orbit Chief Executive Dan Hart said the team was “very proud” of the many successes of the mission, but mindful it failed to provide its customers with the “launch service they deserve”.

“The first-time nature of this mission added layers of complexity that our team professionally managed through; however, in the end a technical failure appears to have prevented us from delivering the final orbit,” he said.

Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, spoke of her devastation at the mission failure.

“This isn't the first time we've been knocked, this is the biggest definitely, but I feel OK and we'll get up and we'll go again,” she said.

“It hasn't gone exactly to plan but we've done everything that we said we were going to do at Spaceport.

“We're feeling awful, to be honest — I'm not going to lie.

“It's gutting and we all heard at different times and when we got together there were tears, and it was very upsetting.

“We are family and we've been through a lot together. So, when you go through something like this as a family at least you have that support, and we all understand one another.

“There's not much more I can say other than it's gutting but everybody's OK.”

Speaking on Tuesday morning, Ian Annett, Deputy Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, said the failure was an “immense disappointment”, but the team hoped to see more satellite launches in the next year.

“This happens in the space industry as well and we go back and go again and that’s what defines us,” he said.

“We would expect to see more satellite launches from the UK within the next year.

“There are so many complexities around this, whether it be regulations and air space. But certainly over the next 12 months we would expect to see us successfully putting satellites into orbit.”

The plane, named Cosmic Girl, took off on Monday night from Cornwall Airport with hundreds of members of the public watching and more than 75,000 people viewing a live stream of the event.

Named in tribute to the Rolling Stones’ 1981 hit, the Start Me Up mission involved a repurposed Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 aircraft and Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket.

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.

The plane took off horizontally from the new facility at Cornwall Airport in Newquay while carrying the rocket under a wing.

To prepare Cosmic Girl for the launch, the interior of the main deck was gutted of all seats and overhead bins to reduce the weight.

The upper deck, which was the former premium and economy cabin, has been converted into a small mission control room for launch engineers to oversee the mission the during flight.

Once the Boeing 747 reached the drop site, the pilots flew her in a looping “racetrack” pattern ahead of the rocket launch.

In the past, satellites produced in the UK have had to be sent to foreign spaceports to make their journey into space.

The launch was the culmination of an eight-year programme that has been driven by Spaceport Cornwall and the government to give Britain a sovereign space capability and allow it to become a player in the international race to harness the potential of the cosmos for life on Earth.

The programme has attracted international customers from the Middle East to Europe and the US, and could lead to further engagement, particularly with the UAE’s space programme.

LauncherOne intended to mark the start of a new development for the UK’s space ambitions to send scores of satellites into low-Earth orbit every year.

First satellite to be launched from Spaceport Cornwall in UK — video

The opening of Spaceport Cornwall has come at a critical time after the closure of Kazakhstan following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which prompted sanctions and security concerns.

Updated: January 10, 2023, 8:49 AM
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