Virgin Orbit suffered a flight anomaly during its historic first mission from the UK

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

A modified 747 Space Girl made history when it lifted off from Cornwall Spaceport in Newquay, England at 5:02 a.m. in hopes of successfully christening the new spaceport. After reaching 35,000 feet in the air, the plane deployed a rocket called LauncherOne, which would then launch its payload into space.

LauncherOne’s payload bay contained nine small satellites representing seven different clients. A two-stage rocket is specially designed to launch small satellites horizontally into orbit. Rather than a traditional rocket that takes off vertically from a launch pad, LauncherOne is designed to attach to an aircraft and ignite at a certain altitude before placing payloads into designated orbits.

The rocket’s first and second stages separated as planned, with the rocket’s upper stage completing a roughly five-minute burn before moving to a long bank before payload deployment. After the ignition, it was clear that something was wrong.

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

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

The mission called “Start Me Up” takes its name from a song by the legendary British band The Rolling Stones.

“I can’t think of a more perfect name for a UK launch,” said billionaire Sir Richard Branson, who founded the Virgin Atlantic airline and the Virgin Galactic aerospace company. Branson also owns Virgin Orbit.

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

After a failed first test flight in May 2020, four subsequent missions were successful, with the company placing 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 an inexpensive means of launching small satellites. Conventional 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 be the first of many launches for the UK and Virgin Orbit. This type of mission offers the flexibility to launch from any location that has a runway and can guarantee that the satellites reach their intended orbits. 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 intervention in Ukraine.

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

To that end, £20 million ($24 million) was needed to transform the small Newquay Airport into Space Cornwall. “The basics were already here,” said Melissa Thorpe, CEO of Spaceport Cornwall, before Monday’s launch. “We have one of the longest runways in the UK and just the team to turn it into a spaceport.”

Thorpe also said the team has worked to strengthen taxiways and build a Space Systems Integration Facility through which customers can connect their respective satellites to the launcher.

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

Thorpe says that despite the failure of this first 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 portray itself as capable of launching from anywhere a 747 can land.

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

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