Virgin Orbit suffers an in-flight anomaly during its historic first mission from the UK

Virgin Orbit’s attempt to make history by launching the first set of satellites from British soil on Monday night did not go to plan, resulting in the loss of all nine satellites on board.

Space Girl, a modified 747, was headed for history as it lifted off at 5:02 p.m. ET from the Cornwall Spaceport in Newquay, England, hoping to successfully christen the new spaceport. Once it reached an altitude of 35,000 feet in the air, the spacecraft deployed a rocket, called LauncherOne, which would then launch its payload into space.

Inside LauncherOne’s armor were nine small satellites, representing seven different customers. The two-stage rocket is specially designed for horizontally launching small satellites into orbit. Instead of a traditional rocket, which is lifted vertically from a launch pad, LauncherOne is designed to be attached to an aircraft and ignited at a certain altitude before depositing its payload into its designated orbits.

The rocket’s first and second stages separated as planned, with the rocket’s upper stage completing a nearly five-minute burn before transitioning to the long bank prior to payload deployment. After starting it up, it soon became clear that something was wrong.

“It appears that LauncherOne has suffered an anomaly, which will prevent us from orbiting during this mission,” Virgin Orbit’s Chris Relf, ​​director of systems engineering and verification, said during the mission’s webcast. Details were not immediately available, but company officials said the anomaly resulted in the loss of all nine payloads on the rocket.

LauncherOne carried nine small satellites within its payload, including payloads for the UK Ministry of Defence, the UK Government, Poland’s Cubesat, a satellite for the Sultanate of Oman and the US Naval Research Laboratory.

The mission called “Start Me Up” was named after a song by the legendary British band The Rolling Stones.

“I couldn’t think of a more perfect name for the first UK launch,” said Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Galactic. Branson also co-owns Virgin Orbit.

According to Branson, all Virgin Orbit launches are named to recognize icons in Virgin’s long musical history, such as when the company signed The Rolling Stones. To date, Virgin Orbit has had five launches, all of which took off from the US-based spaceport in California.

After an unsuccessful first test flight in May 2020, the next four missions were successful, and the company placed 33 satellites into orbit. Unfortunately, the company adds another failed flight to its record.

The technique of launching a spacecraft horizontally from a rocket attached to an aircraft was developed more than 20 years ago as a low-cost means of launching smaller satellites. Traditional rockets were too expensive to launch certain payloads, and this provided a new means of reaching space.

However, with small satellite launches on the rise, this could prove to be the first of many launches for the UK and Virgin Orbit. This type of mission offers the flexibility to launch from anywhere that has an airstrip and can guarantee that the satellites will reach their intended orbit. It also offers another option for European customers who have faced Ariane 6 delays, the grounding of Vega rockets after a failed launch attempt and the loss of access to Russia’s Soyuz vehicles following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“When you look at the way the low-Earth orbit economy is developing, that’s where everyone wants to put their satellites, whether it’s climate change, monitoring or urban development, or for security purposes,” said Ian Annett, deputy director general of the British Space Agency, ahead of the launch. “The ability to access LEO with micro-launches is definitely not a static market – it’s one that continues to grow.”

To that end, it took £20m ($24m) to turn Newquay’s tiny airport into Cornwall’s Spaceport. “The groundwork was already here,” said Melissa Thorpe, executive director of Spaceport Cornwall, ahead of Monday’s launch. “We have one of the longest runways in the UK and just a team to turn it into a spaceport.”

Thorpe also said the team worked to strengthen the taxiways and build a space systems integration facility where customers could connect their satellites to the launcher.

But Cornwall Spaceport is just one of seven sites across the UK to be awarded funding by the country’s space agency in 2017 as part of efforts to develop spaceport sites specifically for launching small payloads into low Earth orbit. Other launch facilities include one in the north of Scotland as well as the Shetland Islands.

Thorpe says that despite the failure of this inaugural launch from the UK, it could still inspire other European countries to invest in spaceports and join the aerospace industry. Virgin Orbit officials said the company wants to establish itself as capable of launching from anywhere a 747 can land.

But to do that, it needs to prove it can successfully launch from multiple locations.

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