During the first attempted orbital launch from the United Kingdom, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne experienced an anomaly, leading to a premature shutdown of the rocket and failure to reach orbit.
The company began its investigation into the failure within hours of the conclusion of the mission under the leadership of distinguished aerospace veteran Jim Sponnick and Virgin Orbit Chief Engineer Chad Foerster. The investigation team received immediate access to extensive telemetry data collected during the mission from the ground stations in the UK, Ireland, and Spain, as well as systems onboard its carrier aircraft, providing a robust dataset that the investigation team has thoroughly examined.
Their investigation has confirmed that the Virgin Orbit team successfully executed pre-flight preparations, carrier aircraft takeoff, captive carry flight, and rocket release. The ignition, first-stage flight, stage separation, second-stage ignition, and fairing deployment of the LauncherOne rocket were nominal. LauncherOne performed successfully on all four prior operational flights, accurately delivering 33 payloads to their required orbits.
The investigation team is utilizing a comprehensive fault tree, a very detailed timeline, and several other products to conduct the investigation in a rigorous manner.
Key observations at this point in the investigation: “The data is indicating that from the beginning of the second stage first burn, a fuel filter within the fuel feedline had been dislodged from its normal position. Additional data shows that the fuel pump that is downstream of the filter operates at a degraded efficiency level, resulting in the Newton 4 engine being starved for fuel. Performing in this anomalous manner resulted in the engine operating at a significantly higher than rated engine temperature.”
Components downstream and in the vicinity of the abnormally hot engine eventually malfunctioned, causing the second stage trust to eliminate prematurely.
Numerous tests are underway to support the investigation and help lead to definitive conclusions. Ultimately, all creditable causes of the failure will be addressed prior to the next LauncherOne mission.
Virgin Orbit’s next launch will occur from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California for a commercial customer.