Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket has suffered a malfunction in the UK


Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747 jet – dubbed “Cosmic Girl” – took off from Newquay in the English county of Cornwall on Monday. 245 miles west of London, in the country’s first launch from British soil. But almost two hours after the plane took off from the ground and the rocket fired its engines to blast off into space, Virgin Orbit discovered that the launch was a failure.

“It appears that LauncherOne has suffered an anomaly that will prevent us from making an orbit for this mission,” said Christopher Relf, ​​director of of systems engineering and verification for Virgin Orbit, in the Virgin Orbit live broadcast covering the launch. LauncherOne is the name of the air-launched rocket that hitchhiked under the wing of the Cosmic Girl plane.

The rocket, which initially appeared to have been launched from a 747 jet without a problem, had no people in it, only satellites. Reif previously confirmed that the rocket’s second stage was hurtling through orbit, preparing to ignite the engines for the second burn. But he later discovered that it didn’t go as planned.

“We are looking at the information and data we have received,” he added. “And we will be I’ll be back with you in a moment with more.”

Continuation twitter of Virgin Orbita echoed Relf’s comments, saying, “It appears we have an anomaly that has prevented us from reaching orbit. We are evaluating the information.”

The Virgin Orbit Cosmic Girl aircraft and crew returned safely to earth after Monday’s launch, the company confirmed in its live broadcast.

The company’s shares, which had already fallen nearly 9% during trading on Monday, fell another 28% after hours. As of 8:00 PM ET, it was priced at just $1.40 per share.

Monday’s event was sighting to mark the first successful launch from the UK, although technically the rocket was designed to be launched while Cosmic Girl was in flight.

The modified Boeing 747 was flying at about 35,000 feet (10.7 kilometers) before release the a rocket strapped under the wing.

Virgin Orbit expects LauncherOne travel between 310 and 745 miles (499 and 1,199 kilometers) above Earth’s surface and then launch nine satellites into low Earth orbit.

It was not immediately clear what caused the rocket to malfunction.

The launch was to be the first commercial satellite launch from Western Europe for Virgin Orbit — a subsidiary of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group — and the first launch for Virgin Orbit outside the United States.

Since January 2021, the American company has carried out four successful launches from the Mojave Desert in California. The company has also experienced one previous failure. Virgin Orbit’s first launch attempt from California in May 2020 failed due to engine problems.

Ahead of the flight, Virgin Orbit chief executive Dan Hart described the British mission as a “historic endeavour”.

“This launch marks the opening of a new era in the UK space industry and new partnerships between industry, government and allies,” he said in a statement released on Friday.

A repurposed Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 aircraft carries Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket.

The satellites on board Monday were owned by seven customers, including private companies and government agencies. Among other things, the satellites are expected to be used to prevent illegal trade, smuggling and terrorism, the company announced on Friday, as well as to reduce the impact of production on the environment.

The mission, named “Start Me Up” after the 1981 Rolling Stones song, was a joint venture between Virgin Orbit, the UK Space Agency, the local government of Cornwall and the UK Royal Air Force.

The launch was expected to mark a key milestone in the UK’s growing commercial satellite sector.

The country has been working on commercial spaceports for several years in an attempt to capture a larger share of the fast-growing global space market, which Morgan Stanley estimates could be worth more than a trillion dollars by 2040.

The country’s £16.5 billion ($20 billion) space industry directly supported around 47,000 jobs between 2019 and 2020, according to the latest available government figures.

Ian Annett, deputy chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said on Friday that the launch signaled a “new era” for Britain’s space industry, “putting [it] firmly on the map as Europe’s leading destination for the commercial launch of small satellites.”

“The development of new orbital launch capabilities is already generating growth, catalysing investment and creating jobs in Cornwall and other communities across the UK,” he added.

The small satellite launch industry is a booming business worldwide, but especially in the United States. Virgin Orbit was one of the first in a long list of start-ups trying to create small rockets that can deliver light satellites into orbit quickly and cheaply – and growing a business model that has dozens of global competitors. But it is known that the industry is also unstable. Other small rocket start-ups have also suffered setbacks in recent months and years, including US-based companies such as Firefly and Astra.

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