Virgin Orbit explains why the rocket broke down and burned up in a spectacular fireball

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Virgin Orbit’s groundbreaking rocket malfunctioned mid-flight, causing it to tumble back to Earth in a spectacular fireball, the company has revealed.

The private space launch company had set itself the goal of conducting a groundbreaking launch Monday evening from Spaceport Cornwall, which would involve attaching a rocket to an aircraft and then using it to launch a series of satellites into orbit. It would have been the first rocket launch from British soil, and the first satellite ever launched from Western Europe.

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But near the end of the mission, Virgin Orbit reported that its rocket had experienced an “anomaly” and the mission had failed. It interrupted its live stream and promised to reveal more information about what went wrong as soon as it became clear.

Now it has revealed some details about what happened to bring the mission to a failed end.

The rocket’s first stage performed as expected, carrying it into space, he said, and the two parts came apart as expected. The rocket’s second and final stage then ignited, again with everything going according to plan.

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But at some point during that process, the upper stage experienced “an anomaly,” it said. That meant that the upper stage no longer burned fuel.

“This anomalous event ended the mission, with the rocket components and payload descending to Earth within the approved safety corridor without having reached orbit,” it said in an announcement. The rocket and its satellites fell back to Earth, apparently burning up, according to video of the events.

The company did not say why that outage occurred, or what the actual nature of the anomaly was. But it indicated that it had collected detailed data from the missile, which allowed it to begin analyzing the problem.

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“Virgin Orbit has launched a formal investigation into the cause of the second stage failure,” the company said.

“A failure analysis and investigation of the anomalous event will be conducted at Government discretion, and implementation of all required corrective actions identified during the investigation will be completed before Virgin Orbit’s next flight commences.”

That flight will start from California. But the company said it expects it will return to Spaceport Cornwall, and will do so “as soon as possible later this year”.