February 4, 2023

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Virgin Orbit experiences an in-flight anomaly during the historic first mission from the UK

Virgin Orbit’s attempt to make history by launching the first batch of satellites from British soil Monday night did not go as planned, resulting in the loss of all nine satellites on board.

Cosmic Girl, a modified 747, steamed into history when it took off at 5:02 p.m. ET from Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay, England, hoping to successfully christen a new spaceport. Once it was 35,000 feet in the air, the aircraft deployed a rocket called LauncherOne, which would then launch its payloads into space.

Tucked inside LauncherOne’s payload display were nine small satellites, representing seven different customers. The two-stage rocket is specifically designed to launch small satellites horizontally into orbit. Instead of a traditional rocket, which launches vertically from a launch pad, LauncherOne is designed to be attached to an aircraft and ignited at a certain altitude before depositing its payloads into their designated orbits.

The rocket’s first and second stages separated as planned, with the rocket’s upper stage completing a burn for about five minutes before moving to a long coast before the payload could be deployed. After the ignition, it quickly became apparent that something wasn’t right.

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

LauncherOne has carried nine small satellites inside its payload gallery, including payloads for the British Ministry of Defense, the British government, Poland’s Cubesat, Oman’s satellite and the US Naval Research Laboratory.

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The mission, called “Start Me Up,” got its name from the song by the legendary British band The Rolling Stones.

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

According to Branson, all of Virgin Orbit’s releases are named to recognize iconic moments in Virgin’s long musical history, such as when the company signed to The Rolling Stones. So far, Virgin Orbit has five launches under its belt, and they all took off from its US spaceport in California.

After the first failed test flight in May 2020, the four subsequent missions have been successful, with the company deploying 33 satellites into orbit. Unfortunately, the company is adding another failed flight to its annals.

The technology to launch a spacecraft from a rocket attached to an aircraft was developed more than 20 years ago as a low-cost way to launch smaller satellites. Conventional rockets have been too expensive to launch certain payloads, and this offers a new way to get into space.

However, with small satellite launches on the rise, this could be the first of many launches for the UK and Virgin Orbit. This type of mission provides flexibility in launching from any location with an airstrip and can ensure satellites reach their intended orbits. It also provides another option for European customers who have faced delays on Ariane 6, which is to ground the Vega missiles after a failed launch attempt and lose access to Russian Soyuz vehicles after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

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“When you look at the way the economy of low Earth orbit is developing, it is where everyone is looking to put their satellites, whether it is for climate change or monitoring or urban development, or for security purposes,” said Ian Annette, executive vice-president of the British Space Agency, before launch. “The ability to get into low Earth orbit with small launches is not a static market — it’s a market that’s still growing.”

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

Thorpe also said the team has worked to enhance taxiways and build a space systems integration facility where customers can link their satellites to the operator.

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

Although this inaugural launch from the UK failed, Thorpe says, it could still inspire other European countries to invest in spaceports and join the aviation industry. Virgin Orbit officials said the company wants to prove itself that it has the ability to launch from anywhere the 747 could land.

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But in order to do so, it must demonstrate the ability to launch successfully from multiple locations.