UK's First Ever Orbital Space Launch May Have Failed, But It's Not The End Of The Project

Photo issued by UK Space Agency of Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket at Spaceport Cornwall, at Cornwall Airport in Newquay.
Photo issued by UK Space Agency of Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket at Spaceport Cornwall, at Cornwall Airport in Newquay.

Photo issued by UK Space Agency of Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket at Spaceport Cornwall, at Cornwall Airport in Newquay.

The UK’s first ever orbital space launch was attempted on Monday evening, triggering hopes that we were at the edge of a new British high-tech industry.

Hundreds gathered to watch the launch in person and more than 75,000 people logged onto a live stream.

Sadly, though, the launch failed.

Here’s what you need to know.

What happened?

A repurposed 747 jumbo jet from Virgin Orbit, an American company run by British entrepreneur Richard Branson, was meant to release a rocket over the Atlantic Ocean, carrying nine satellites.

It was part of The Virgin Orbit: Start Me Up mission and aptly named after a 1981 song from the Rolling Stones.

Launched around 10pm GMT from Newquay Airport in Cornwall, the jet did head west just below the coast of the Irish counties of Kerry and Cork, as planned.

A repurposed Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 aircraft, named Cosmic Girl, carrying Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket, takes off from Spaceport Cornwall at Cornwall Airport, Newquay.
A repurposed Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 aircraft, named Cosmic Girl, carrying Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket, takes off from Spaceport Cornwall at Cornwall Airport, Newquay.

A repurposed Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 aircraft, named Cosmic Girl, carrying Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket, takes off from Spaceport Cornwall at Cornwall Airport, Newquay.

When it reached an altitude of 35,000ft, the jet (called Cosmic Girl) released the rocket (called LauncherOne) carrying nine small satellites away from the Earth.

If it had been successful, the nine small satellites would have been released into an orbit of more than 500km above the planet, with a mix of civil, military applications ranging from ocean monitoring to navigation technology.

Instead, Virgin Orbit tweeted late last night that the rocket had failed to orbit.

It said: “We appear to have an anomaly that has prevented us from reaching orbit. We are evaluating the information.

“As we find out more, we’re removing our previous tweet about reaching orbit.

“We’ll share more info when we can.”

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Virgin Orbit is usually based in California and has previously carried out four successful rocket launches over the Pacific Ocean, but it relocated the team to Cornwall just for Monday’s launch.

The company is known for its horizontal launches, compared to Elon Musk’s SpaceX’s vertical take-offs.

So it was particularly devastating when the team acknowledged that it was the company’s first rocket launch ever to “fall short of delivering its payloads to their precise target orbit”.

The original launch had already been delayed once. It was meant to take place before Christmas, but technical and regulatory issues meant it was delayed until 2023.

So what may have gone wrong?

Eight years of intense work prior to the launch led up to Monday’s event.

The plane was stripped of its previous interior to save weight, as a fully fuelled rocket is too heavy.

Two engineers still sat at the consoles on the top deck, and the cockpit was unchanged – only a giant red button was added to release the rocket (dubbed LauncherOne).

And, as Virgin Orbit had completed so many other successful launch missions on the other side of Atlantic, there was real hope it would work.

When it failed, Virgin Orbit’s CEO Dan Hart said: “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.”

Engineers were still trying to find out what caused the fault with the rocket when the plane which had carried it returned safely to Spaceport Cornwall.

The UK Space Agency’s Matt Archer said that the cause was linked back to an “anomaly” although it was still under investigation.

He suggested a fault had effectively stopped the rocket from reaching the required altitude to maintain orbit or deploy the satellites.

He explained: “Over the coming days there’ll be an investigation involving the government and various bodies, including Virgin Orbit, to make sure we understand what caused the technical failure and again we’ll work out what to do next following that.”

Archer suggested that it was the second stage of “burn” which may have struggled to catapult the satellites 500km above the Earth.

A replica model of Launcher One rocket at the temporary event centre set-up at Newquay airport for the Virgin Orbit launch on January 09, 2023
A replica model of Launcher One rocket at the temporary event centre set-up at Newquay airport for the Virgin Orbit launch on January 09, 2023

A replica model of Launcher One rocket at the temporary event centre set-up at Newquay airport for the Virgin Orbit launch on January 09, 2023

What does this mean for the project?

The ambitious project was meant to mark out several “firsts”  –  the first orbital launch from the UK, the first international launch for Virgin Orbit and the first commercial launch from western Europe, to name just a few.

According to PA, head of Spaceport Cornwall, Melissa Thorpe, was understandably disappointed.

She said: “This isn’t the first time we’ve been knocked, this is the biggest definitely, but I feel okay and we’ll get up and we’ll go again.

“It hasn’t gone exactly to plan but we’ve done everything that we said we were going to do at Spaceport.

“We’re feeling awful, to be honest – I’m not going to lie.

“It’s gutting and we all heard at different times and when we got together there were tears, and it was very upsetting.”

She said the team who have worked on the launch for more than eight years were like a “family”, and that they were all still supporting each other.

Archer added: “While it is obviously disappointing that the mission wasn’t successful, actually we’re really proud of the fact that we’ve delivered so much here and we’ve created the conditions for launch here.

“We’ve seen that we can do it and we will look to do it again.”

So, if you’re a space enthusiast, don’t lose hope yet.

It’s still a major step towards putting the UK on the map when it comes to space exploration.

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