Virgin Orbit blames UK space launch fail on ‘premature shutdown’

Start Me Up: Virgin Orbit rocket takes flight from Cornwall

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Virgin Orbit has announced that its rocket carrying nine small satellites was destroyed in the first attempt at a space launch from British soil due to a so-called “premature shutdown”. Richard Branson’s space company said on Thursday that the upper stage of the LauncherOne rocket, which blasted out of the Earth’s atmosphere on Monday night, prematurely shut down at around 180 kilometers into space.

It was involved in Virgin Orbit’s Start Me Up mission, which had been hailed as a groundbreaking moment for the UK’s burgeoning space sector in an event that drew in thousands of people to Spaceport Cornwall’s site at Newquay Airport Cornwall. 

But in a bitterly disappointing moment for all those involved, Virgin Orbit announced late on Monday night that the rocket had suffered an “anomaly” and failed to reach orbit. The result is that the nine satellites and a rocket have gone to waste. Virgin Orbit said it would work tirelessly to find out what caused the failure. 

In a statement on Thursday, the company said initial data showed that the rocket’s first stage performed as expected. The 70-foot-long rocket even reached space altitudes, with stage separation and ignition of the upper stage occurring in line with the mission plan.

However, at an altitude of approximately 180km, the upper stage experienced an anomaly that prematurely ended the first burn.

A formal investigation into what caused the anomaly is still ongoing, but the firm is eager to get another launch done within the year. 

Dan Hart, CEO of Virgin Orbit, said: “We are all disappointed that we were not able to achieve full mission success and provide the launch service that our customers deserve. Upon identifying the anomaly, our team immediately moved into a pre-planned investigation mode.”

Speaking on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Grant Shapps said: “We’ll be doing a lot of post-mortems to find out exactly what happened. Space is inherently difficult.”

The minister added that he is still optimistic about Britain’s role in the space industry going forward, saying: “People may not know this [but] the UK produces more satellites than anywhere outside of California. If we can crack the ability to launch these satellites as well, that’s a lot of industry, that’s a lot of jobs created. So, it’s something we’re very keen to do and I’ve no doubt we’ll be back.

“We’re looking for up to seven different launch sites in the UK — vertical as well as horizontal — over the next few years.”

The horizontal launch involved a modified Boeing 747, dubbed Cosmic Girl, taking off from the runway with the LauncherOne rocket under its wing. The plane – which was piloted by RAF Squadron Leader Matthew Stannard – ferried the rocket thousands of miles into the sky before dropping it mid-air. 

The LauncherOne then fired up its engines and shot up out of the Earth’s atmosphere using its own power, while the Cosmic Girl crew made their way back to Newquay Airport.

But instead of reaching orbit, LauncherOne ultimately fell back towards Earth, burning during atmospheric reentry.

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The rocket’s payload of satellites has also been lost and was supposed to serve a range of purposes for seven different commercial and governmental customers for several nations. It is understood that the satellites were insured, meaning their manufacturers and operators will be compensated for their loss.

Spaceport Cornwall head Melissa Thorpe said that the outcome of Monday’s mission left her “absolutely devastated”.

She added: “We are so incredibly proud of everything we have achieved with our partners and friends across the space industry here in the UK and in the US. We made it to space — a UK first.  

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