Anomaly forces Virgin Orbit to abort mission seconds after launch

26 May 2020

Aerial shot of LauncherOne firing its booster after detaching from the Cosmic Girl aircraft. Image: Virgin Orbit

An attempted rocket launch by Virgin Orbit was cancelled seconds after the craft was launched when an anomaly was detected.

A rocket launched by Virgin Orbit from its ‘Cosmic Girl’ Boeing 747 carrier aircraft has suffered some kind of anomaly on what was a demonstrator mission for the company. The satellite launch firm based in California uses traditional aircraft to carry a rocket into the air, where the spacecraft would then be released and sent into orbit.

In a blog post, Virgin Orbit confirmed that pre-flight tests showed the rocket was ready to fly and that after release, the LauncherOne rocket successfully lit its booster engine as planned. However, an anomaly occurred early in the first stage of flight, forcing the Virgin Orbit team to cancel the mission and return Cosmic Girl and its crew to base.

Speaking of the mission, Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said: “Our team performed their pre-launch and flight operations with incredible skill today [25 May]. Test flights are instrumented to yield data and we now have a treasure trove of that. We accomplished many of the goals we set for ourselves, though not as many as we would have liked.

“Nevertheless, we took a big step forward today. Our engineers are already poring through the data. Our next rocket is waiting. We will learn, adjust, and begin preparing for our next test, which is coming up soon.”

From rockets to ventilators

The company’s next rocket is in final stages of integration at its Long Beach manufacturing facility, with a half-dozen other rockets for subsequent missions reportedly ready for future missions.

Virgin Orbit is one of a number of private space companies looking to bring thousands of small satellites into orbit for other companies. However, Virgin Orbit’s approach differs from the likes of SpaceX as it launches its rockets from traditional aircraft, rather than from spaceports.

LauncherOne was originally set for testing last year, but according to The Verge, additional tweaking and testing pushed out the launch to now.

Last month, Virgin Orbit announced it would pivot some of its facilities to develop ventilators in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It received regulatory approval from the US Food and Drug Administration to distribute its new ‘bridge’ ventilator on an emergency basis. Using its facilities, Virgin Orbit said it could create more than 100 devices a week.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic