Virgin Orbit’s groundbreaking satellite launch ends in failure


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Britain’s attempt to become the first European nation to launch satellites into space ended in bitter disappointment early Tuesday when Virgin Orbit said its rocket had suffered an anomaly that prevented it from reaching orbit.

The “horizontal launch” mission had departed from the coastal town of Newquay in southwest England, with Virgin’s LauncherOne rocket, carried under the wing of a modified Boeing 747 dubbed “Cosmic Girl”, and later released over the Atlantic Ocean.

“It looks like we have an anomaly preventing us from going into orbit,” the company said. “We are evaluating the information.”

The failure is another blow to European space ambitions after an Italian-built Vega-C rocket mission failed in late December after launching from French Guiana.

The missiles are now grounded.

Europe has suffered a series of setbacks over the past year, with the main Ariane 6 launcher delayed, access to Russian Soyuz missiles blocked by the war in Ukraine, Vega grounded and now a demonstration launch for the burgeoning small launcher industry that has been specified.

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Virgin Orbit had initially said on Twitter that LauncherOne had reached orbit, a tweet that was later deleted.

“In the coming days there will be an investigation by the government and various agencies, including Virgin Orbit,” said Matt Archer, Commercial Space Director at the UK Space Agency.

Virgin Orbit VORB.O, part-owned by British billionaire Richard Branson, planned to place nine small satellites into lower Earth orbit (LEO) on its first mission outside its US base.

The mission had been heralded as a historic first for Cornwall, Britain and Europe, and thousands of enthusiasts watching from the runway cheered as “Cosmic Girl” took off and when they were told the rocket had deployed.

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The crowd dispersed quickly and quietly after the announcement of the bust.

Mission failed

The mission failure would be the second in Virgin Orbit’s history since its initial launch in 2020. The company has had four successful missions.

Archer of the UK Space Agency said the rocket had launched into space due to fire in the first stage, but the second stage had a “technical anomaly and failed to reach the required orbit”.

A graphic on an official video feed showed the mission at second engine shutdown, three steps short of payload deployment, about two hours after takeoff.

The war in Ukraine has highlighted the importance for tactical military purposes of smaller satellites, such as those launched from Newquay, which can reach low Earth orbit much faster than larger ones.

It was not immediately clear how the glitch, which will need to be investigated, would affect the timing or location of future missions. Virgin Orbit Chief Executive Dan Hart told reporters on Sunday the company hoped to return to Newquay before the end of 2023.

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Britain says it is the leading non-US satellite manufacturer, employing 47,000 people in the space industry, and has called for the development of multiple potential microlaunch sites, including two vertical launch pads in Scotland.

The UK Space Agency had described the Cornish mission as a moment of national pride for the growing UK space industry, while UK Science Secretary George Freeman told Reuters at the spaceport it was a “historic moment”.

“A lot of things have been achieved and yet the milestone is clearly disappointing,” said Archer. “But we’ll keep going and we’ll get there eventually.”