Science

British space agency Virgin Orbit investigates failed rocket launch

Virgin Orbit and the United Kingdom Space Agency have announced that they will be investigating the loss of Launcher One rocket during the company’s first historic launch attempt from the United Kingdom.

On Monday (January 9), Virgin Orbit attempted the UK’s first orbital launch from Cornwall, the UK’s first commercial launch site. The converted Boeing 747-400 Cosmic Girl took off at 5:02 pm EST (22:02 GMT) and lifted the Launcher One rocket to an altitude of 35,000 feet (10.6 km). The rocket then ignited, successfully reaching space on its first stage and separating about 3.5 minutes of flight, but an anomaly occurred shortly after. The rocket’s upper stage and its payload of nine satellites were lost.

On Tuesday (January 10), both Virgin Orbit and the UK Space Agency issued statements promising to investigate the cause of the anomaly. “We will work tirelessly to understand the nature of the failure, take corrective action and return to orbit once we have completed a full investigation and mission assurance process,” Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said in a company statement. (will open in a new tab).

Related: Virgin Orbit rocket suffers anomaly during first launch from UK

A Virgin Orbit Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl takes off with a Launcher One rocket under its wing on January 25. On September 9, 2023, the Start Me Up mission launched from Cornwall in the United Kingdom. (Image credit: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images)

Matt Archer, director of commercial space flight at the UK Space Agency, said the agency will be “working closely with Virgin Orbit as they investigate the causes of the anomaly in the coming days and weeks,” according to a statement posted on Twitter. (will open in a new tab).

“While this result is disappointing, launching a spacecraft always comes with significant risk,” Archer said. “Despite this, the project succeeded in creating a horizontal launch capability at the Cornwall launch site and we remain committed to becoming the leading provider of commercial small satellite launches in Europe by 2030, with vertical launches planned from Scotland.”

This optimism, despite the unsuccessful launch, was supported by Melissa Thorpe, head of the Cornwall launch site. “We are incredibly proud of everything we have achieved with our partners and friends in the space industry here in the UK and in the US. We made it to space – a first in the UK,” Thorpe said in a statement to Virgin Orbit. “Today we have inspired millions and we will continue to inspire millions more. Not only with our ambitions, but also with our fortitude. Yes, space is hard, but we’re just getting started.”

The mission name “Start Me Up” was inspired by the 1981 Rolling Stones song of the same name, and the rock and roll theme could be seen in the crowd’s excitement at the launch event. According to Ian Annette, deputy director general of the UK space agency, the launch drew huge crowds and tickets sold out faster than the UK’s popular Glastonbury music festival.

The launch was part of the UK’s space infrastructure development initiative as the global space market continues to expand. The United Kingdom is home to several satellite manufacturers including Airbus, Surrey Satellite Technology and Clyde Space, but prior to this launch, the satellites had to be delivered to spaceports in other countries for launch.

“As a country, we are building more satellites than anywhere else outside of the US,” Ian Annette, deputy director general of the UK space agency, said during a pre-launch press conference. “So it helps develop end-to-end capabilities so we can do everything.”

Prior to this launch failure, Virgin Orbit had launched four successive successful missions that put a total of 33 satellites into orbit.

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