First UK space launch fails after second stage anomaly


The first UK orbital space launch ended in failure last night when Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket burned up before it reached its target orbit.

The carrier aircraft of the air-launch system, a modified Boeing 747 called Cosmic Girl took off from the runway at Spaceport Cornwall just after 10pm (GMT), traveled to the designated drop zone and successfully released the rocket.

The rocket then ignited its engines, achieving hypersonic speeds and reaching space. The flight then continued through successful stage separation and ignition of the second stage.

However, LauncherOne then experienced an anomaly while travelling at a speed of more than 11,000mph (17,700km/h) ending the mission prematurely.

Dan Hart, CEO of Virgin Orbit said, “The first-time nature of this mission added layers of complexity that our team professionally managed. 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.”

Matt Archer, director of commercial spaceflight at the UK Space Agency, the UK government agency involved in the launch said, “We will work closely with Virgin Orbit as they investigate what caused the anomaly in the coming days and weeks. While this result is disappointing, launching a spacecraft always carries significant risks.

“Despite this, the project has succeeded in creating a horizontal launch capability at Spaceport Cornwall, and we remain committed to becoming the leading provider of commercial small satellite launch in Europe by 2030, with vertical launches planned from Scotland.”

This latest mission, called Start Me Up was carrying nine satellites including an experiment for in-orbit manufacturing company Space Forge and several UK defence satellites.

Virgin Orbit’s mobile air-launch system has failed before – during it first test flight in May 2020, but the company, which was founded in 2017 has successfully run three launches since from its base at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

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Ben has worked as a journalist and editor, covering technology, engineering and industry for the last 20 years. Initially writing about subjects from nuclear submarines to autonomous cars to future design and manufacturing technologies, he was editor of a leading UK-based engineering magazine before becoming editor of Aerospace Testing in 2017.

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