Historic Cornwall satellite launch fails to reach orbit

The Virgin Orbit 747 Cosmic Girl lifts off at night.
Photo Credit: Virgin Orbit

LONDON – The historic first attempt to launch satellites from British soil – the Cornwall rocket launch of Virgin’s LauncherOne carrying nine satellites – reached space late last night, but ultimately fell short of reaching its target orbit.

Following the successful lift to the drop zone by the role modified lifting aircraft, a Boeing 747 called Cosmic Girl, the LauncherOne rocket which was loaded with nine satellites detached and ignited its engines but failed to reach orbit.

Whilst the overall mission was unsuccessful in meeting its objectives, the testing of an aircraft assisted launch from the Cornwall spaceport has perhaps demonstrated its viability. The stakeholders will now go through a process of investigating the cause of the failure.

A debrief of the failed mission was provided today by Virgin Orbit.

Photo Credit: Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit mission de-brief

The mission successfully lifted off from the runway at Spaceport Cornwall – which just a few weeks ago was transformed from a mere slab of empty cement at a commercial airport to the world’s newest space launch operations center.

Travelling to the designated drop zone, Cosmic Girl, the customized 747 that serves as the LauncherOne system’s carrier aircraft, successfully released the rocket. 

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 travelling at a speed of more than 11,000 miles per hour, the system experienced an anomaly, ending the mission prematurely.

Though the Cornwall rocket launch did not achieve its final orbit, 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.

These included 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.

Partnership statements

Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit CEO, said: “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.”

“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.”

Matt Archer, Director of Commercial Spaceflight at the UK Space Agency, said: “Last night, Virgin Orbit attempted the first orbital launch from Spaceport Cornwall. We have shown the UK is capable of launching into orbit, but the launch was not successful in reaching the required orbit.”

“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.”

Melissa Thorpe, Head of Spaceport Cornwall, added: “We are so incredibly proud of everything we have achieved with our partners and friends across the space industry here in the UK and in the US – we made it to space – a UK first.”

“Unfortunately we learned that Virgin Orbit experienced an anomaly which means we didn’t achieve a successful mission.”

“Today we inspired millions, and we will continue to look to inspire millions more. Not just with our ambition but also with our fortitude. Yes, space is hard, but we are only just getting started.”

The cause of the Cornwall rocket launch failure to achieve orbit will now be investigated by the stakeholders.

By Len Varley - Assistant Editor 5 Min Read
5 Min Read
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