Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Historic UK rocket mission fails to reach orbit

Virgin Orbit’s historic first attempt to launch satellites from British soil reached space late last night but ultimately fell short of reaching its target orbit.

After successfully taking off from the runway at Spaceport Cornwall and traveling to the designated drop zone, Cosmic Girl, the customized 747 that serves as the LauncherOne system’s carrier aircraft, successfully released the rocket. The 70-foot LauncherOne rocket was carrying a payload of nine satellites that were to be released into low orbital positions 300 or more miles above the Earth.

The rocket then ignited its engines, quickly going hypersonic and successfully reaching space. The flight then continued through successful stage separation and ignition of the second stage. However, at some point during the firing of the rocket’s second-stage engine and with the rocket traveling at a speed of more than 11,000 miles per hour, the system experienced an anomaly that prevented it from reaching orbit.

The mission did not achieve its final orbit, but by reaching space and achieving numerous significant first-time achievements, it represents an important step forward. The effort behind the flight brought together new partnerships and integrated collaboration from a wide range of partners, including the UK Space Agency, the Royal Air Force, the Civil Aviation Authority, the US Federal Aviation Administration, the National Reconnaissance Office, and more, and demonstrated that space launch is achievable from UK soil.

Out of five LauncherOne missions carrying payloads for private companies and governmental agencies, this is the first to fall short of delivering its payloads to their precise target orbit.

Virgin Orbit is reviewing the launch data to identify the source of the failure. The carrier 747 jet and its crew safely returned and landed at Spaceport Cornwall in southwest England.

“While we are very proud of the many things that we successfully achieved as part of this mission, we are mindful that we failed to provide our customers with the launch service they deserve,” said Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit CEO. “The first-time nature of this mission added layers of complexity that our team professionally managed through; however, in the end, a technical failure appears to have prevented us from delivering the final orbit. We will work tirelessly to understand the nature of the failure, make corrective actions, and return to orbit as soon as we have completed a full investigation and mission assurance process.”