NEWQUAY, UK — The first-ever orbital mission to take off from the UK hasn’t gone to plan.
This flight, Virgin Orbit’s “Start Me Up” mission, got off to a pretty good start. The company’s carrier aircraft, known as Cosmic Girl, took off from Spaceport Cornwall here as scheduled on Monday January 9 at 5:02 p.m. EST (2202 GMT).
Cosmic Girl dropped the 21 meter long Virgin Orbit LauncherOne rocket at 6:09 p.m. EST (2309 GMT), when the aircraft was off the southwest coast of Ireland. The rocket’s first stage did its job, and the two stages of LauncherOne separated as planned about 3.5 minutes after release.
The rocket’s upper stage completed a nearly five-minute burn soon after, then entered a long climb. It was during this phase that we learned that something was wrong.
“It appears that LauncherOne has experienced an anomaly, which will prevent us from getting this mission into orbit,” Chris Relf, Virgin Orbit’s director of systems engineering and verification, said in a webcast of the release. assignment. Details were not immediately available.
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The failure resulted in the loss of nine satellites. These payloads are an in-orbit manufacturing experiment by British company Space Forge; several British defense cubesats, including two for studying the ionosphere, the upper layer of the Earth’s atmosphere where space weather occurs; and an experimental global navigation satellite co-funded by the European Space Agency.
“Start Me Up”, which takes its name from the famous 1981 Rolling Stones song, was an important mission for Virgin Orbit. The company’s five previous orbital flights have originated from Mojave Air and Spaceport in southeastern California. “Start Me Up” thus opened a new chapter of launch for the company.
At a pre-launch press conference on Sunday January 8, Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said the company could be back at Spaceport Cornwall later this year and is also considering other sites around the world. entire.
“We’re excited about the future and we’ll be back, maybe later this year, to revive and hopefully pick up the pace,” Hart said. “We want to be part of the fabric of the space community here in the UK as well as around the world. That’s our goal as a business.”
“Start Me Up” was also a very big deal for the UK. According to Ian Annett, Deputy Director General of the UK Space Agency, tickets to watch Cosmic Girl take off from Spaceport Cornwall, also known as Newquay Airport, have sold out faster than those to the iconic music festival of Glastonbury in the UK.
Space geeks from England’s south-west Cornwall region and beyond braved the cold to witness the historic moment, despite occasional rain showers and gusty winds that sent temperatures up to 48 degrees Fahrenheit (9 degrees Celsius) on even colder places.
They weren’t able to witness the rocket drop, but they saw Cosmic Girl return safely to the airport.
The UK has announced plans to develop infrastructure for small satellite launches in 2014 in hopes of increasing its share of the global space market. The country is home to some of the major manufacturers of small satellites, including Airbus, Surrey Satellite Technology and Clyde Space. Prior to “Start Me Up”, these satellites had to be shipped elsewhere to be launched.
“The space industry is worth around £6.5 billion [$7.7 billion] annually for the UK economy,” Annett said at Sunday’s pre-launch press conference.
“As a country, we’re building more satellites than anywhere else outside of the United States,” he said. “So it’s useful to develop an end-to-end capability so that we can do it all.”
According to Spaceport Cornwall CEO Melisa Thorpe, it cost £20 million ($24 million) to convert tiny Newquay Airport into a space-ready site. A total of seven sites received funding from the UK Space Agency in 2017 to help with space upgrades.
Two other sites are currently in the final phase of preparation for space launch: Space Hub Sutherland in the north of Scotland and SaxaVord Spaceport on the Shetland Islands off the coast of Scotland. Both of these spaceports will be used for vertical launches of micro-rockets and hope to see their first liftoffs later this year.
Virgin Orbit had had a streak of four consecutive launch successes until today. These four missions had placed 33 satellites in orbit for a variety of clients.