Virgin Orbit suffers in-flight anomaly on historic first mission from UK

Virgin Orbit’s attempt to make history by launching the first set of satellites from UK soil on Monday evening did not go to plan, resulting in the loss of all nine satellites on board.

Cosmic Girl, a modified 747, rolled into history as it lifted off at 5:02 p.m. ET from Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay, England, in hopes of successfully christening a new spaceport. Once it reached 35,000 feet in the air, the plane deployed a rocket, called LauncherOne, which would then launch its payloads into space.

Inside LauncherOne’s payload shroud were nine small satellites, representing seven different customers. The two-stage rocket is specially designed to horizontally launch small satellites into orbit. Rather than a traditional rocket, which lifts off vertically from a launch pad, LauncherOne is designed to be attached to an aircraft and ignited at a certain altitude before dropping its payloads into their designated orbits.

The rocket’s first and second stages separated as planned, with the rocket’s upper stage burning for nearly five minutes before transitioning to a long coast before payload deployment. After ignition, it quickly became clear that something was wrong.

“It appears that LauncherOne has experienced an anomaly, which will prevent us from getting into orbit for this mission,” Chris Relf, ​​Virgin Orbit’s director of systems engineering and verification, said in a webcast. of the mission. Details were not immediately available, but company officials said the anomaly resulted in the loss of all nine payloads aboard the rocket.

LauncherOne carried nine small satellites inside its payload fairing, including payloads for the UK Ministry of Defence, the UK government, a Polish Cubesat, a satellite for the Sultanate of Oman and US Naval Research Laboratory.

The mission, called “Start Me Up”, is named after the song by legendary British band The Rolling Stones.

“I can’t think of a more perfect name for the first launch from the UK,” said Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire who founded airline Virgin Atlantic and aerospace company Virgin Galactic. Branson is also a co-owner of Virgin Orbit.

According to Branson, all Virgin Orbit launches have been named to recognize iconic moments in Virgin’s long musical history, such as when the company signed The Rolling Stones. Virgin Orbit has five launches to date, all of which have taken off from its US-based spaceport in California.

After an initial unsuccessful test flight in May 2020, the next four missions were successful, with the company deploying 33 satellites into orbit. Unfortunately, the company adds another failed flight to its records.

The technique of launching a spacecraft horizontally from a rocket attached to an airliner was developed more than 20 years ago as an inexpensive way to launch smaller satellites. Traditional rockets were too expensive to launch certain payloads, providing a new way to reach space.

However, with the increase in small satellite launches, this could prove to be the first of many launches for the UK and Virgin Orbit. This type of mission offers launch flexibility from any location with an airstrip and can ensure that satellites travel to their intended orbits. It also offers another option for European customers faced with Ariane 6 delays, the grounding of Vega rockets after a failed launch attempt and the loss of access to Russian Soyuz vehicles following the Russian invasion of the Ukraine.

“When you look at how the economy in low Earth orbit is developing, that’s where everyone is looking to put their satellites, whether it’s for climate change, observation, or urban development, or for security purposes,” said Ian Annett, deputy director general of the British space agency, before the launch. “The ability to access LEO with micro-releases is certainly not a static market – it’s a market that continues to grow.”

To that end, it took £20 million ($24 million) to transform tiny Newquay Airport into Spaceport Cornwall. “The foundations were already there,” Spaceport Cornwall CEO Melissa Thorpe said ahead of Monday’s launch. “We have one of the longest runways in the UK, and just the team to turn it into a spaceport.”

Thorpe also said the team worked to reinforce taxiways and build a space systems integration facility where customers could couple their respective satellites to the launch vehicle.

But Spaceport Cornwall is just one of seven locations across the UK to which the country’s space agency awarded funding in 2017 as part of an effort to develop spaceport sites specifically for the launching small payloads into low Earth orbit. Other launch facilities include one in northern Scotland as well as the Shetland Islands.

Thorpe says that despite the failure of this inaugural launch from the UK, it could still inspire other European countries to invest in spaceports and join the aerospace industry. Virgin Orbit officials said the company wants to establish itself as having the ability to launch from anywhere a 747 can land.

But to do so, it must prove that it can be launched successfully from multiple locations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *