Virgin Orbit’s historic UK satellite launch ends in failure

10 Jan 2023

Image: Virgin Orbit

The company said it will investigate the cause of the anomaly and make corrective actions for future launches.

A historic UK mission to launch satellites has ended in failure after an anomaly prevented the Virgin Orbit rocket from reaching orbit.

A customised Boeing 747 called ‘Cosmic Girl’ took off from Cornwall last night (9 January) and released LauncherOne, a rocket carrying a payload of nine satellites.

The mission was being assisted by Ireland’s National Space Centre, which supported telemetry, tracking and control ground station services.

Virgin Orbit – which led the mission – said the rocket was successful in reaching space, but an issue occurred during the firing of the rocket’s second stage engine, ending the mission prematurely.

The company’s shares have dropped by as much as 30pc in after-hours trading as a result of the failure, CNBC reports.

Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said the “first-time nature” of the mission added layers of complexity which the team handled, but a technical failure appears to have impacted the mission.

“While we are very proud of the many things that we successfully achieved as part of this mission, we are mindful that we failed to provide our customers with the launch service they deserve,” Hart said

“We will work tirelessly to understand the nature of the failure, make corrective actions, and return to orbit as soon as we have completed a full investigation and mission assurance process.”

The satellite launch company said the mission also created new collaborations from partners such as the UK Space Agency, the Royal Air Force and the Civil Aviation Authority.

UK Space Agency’s commercial airflight director Matt Archer said it will work closely with Virgin Orbit as they investigate the cause of the anomaly.

“Despite this, the project has succeeded in creating a horizontal launch capability at Spaceport Cornwall, and we remain committed to becoming the leading provider of commercial small satellite launch in Europe by 2030, with vertical launches planned from Scotland,” Archer said.

Virgin Orbit was spun out from Virgin Galactic, the suborbital passenger spaceflight company also founded by Branson, in 2017. In 2020, another anomaly cancelled a Virgin Orbit launch seconds after the LauncherOne rocket was released.

The company marked its first commercial launch in June 2021, before going public later the same year after merging with a special-purpose acquisition company listed on the Nasdaq.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic