Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket has failed in the UK


Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747 — dubbed the “space girl” — took off from Newquay in the English county of Cornwall on Monday. 245 miles west of London, in the country’s first launch from UK soil. But almost two hours after the plane left the ground, Virgin Orbit revealed that the launch had failed.

“It appears that LauncherOne has suffered an anomaly that will prevent us from creating an orbit for this mission,” said Christopher Relf, ​​director of systems engineering and verification for Virgin Orbit, in the Virgin Orbit live stream covering the launch. LauncherOne is the name of the air rocket that hooked the ride under the wing of the Cosmic Girl plane.

There were no people on the rocket, which was expected to take off, only satellites in the air.

“We are considering the information and data we have received,” he added. “And we will be.” back with you in a moment with more.”

Continuation tweet from Virgin Orbit echoed Relph’s comments, reading: “It appears we have an anomaly that has prevented us from reaching orbit. We are evaluating the information.”

Monday’s event was aiming to mark the first successful launch from the UK, however technically the rocket is designed to be launched while Space Girl is in flight.

The modified Boeing 747 was flying at about 35,000 feet (10.7 kilometers) before release the rocket strapped under the wing.

Virgin Orbit expected LauncherOne to travel between 310 and 745 miles (499 and 1,199 kilometers) above the Earth’s surface and then release nine satellites into low Earth orbit.

It was not immediately clear what caused the rocket to malfunction.

The launch was intended to be the first for Virgin Orbit — a subsidiary of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group — of commercial satellites from Western Europe, and the first launch for Virgin Orbit outside the United States.

As of January 2021, the US-based company has conducted four successful launches from California’s Mojave Desert. The company has experienced one previous failure. Virgin Orbit’s first launch attempt from California in May 2020 failed due to engine problems.

Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl aircraft and crew returned safely to Earth after Monday’s launch, the company confirmed in a live broadcast.

Ahead of the summer, Virgin Orbit chief executive Dan Hart described the UK mission as a “historic endeavour”.

“This launch marks the opening of a new era in the UK space industry and new partnerships between industry, government and allies,” he said in a statement released on Friday.

A converted Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 is carrying Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket.

The satellites on board Monday were owned by seven customers, including private companies and government agencies. Among other things, the satellites were expected to be used to prevent illegal trade, smuggling and terrorism, the company said on Friday, as well as to reduce the impact of production on the environment.

The mission, named “Start Me Up” after the 1981 Rolling Stones song, was a joint venture between Virgin Orbit, the British Space Agency, the local government of Cornwall and the Royal Air Force of Great Britain.

The launch is expected to mark a key milestone in the UK’s growing commercial satellite sector.

The country has been working on commercial spaceports for several years in an attempt to capture a larger share of the fast-growing global space market, which Morgan Stanley estimates could be worth over $1 trillion by 2040.

The country’s £16.5 billion ($20 billion) space industry directly supported around 47,000 jobs between 2019 and 2020, according to the latest available government figures.

Ian Annett, deputy chief executive of the British Space Agency, said on Friday that the launch signaled a “new era” for Britain’s space industry, “putting [it] firmly on the map as Europe’s leading destination for the commercial launch of small satellites.”

“The development of new orbital launch capabilities is already generating growth, catalysing investment and creating jobs in Cornwall and other communities across the UK,” he added.

The small satellite industry is a growing business worldwide, but especially in the United States. Virgin Orbit was one of the first in a long list of start-up companies trying to build small rockets that could quickly and cheaply deliver lightweight satellites into orbit – is growing a business model that has dozens of global competitors. But the industry is also notoriously fickle. Other small rocket companies have also suffered setbacks in recent months and years, including US-based companies such as Firefly and Astra.

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