Virgin Orbit and Government investigating why first UK rocket launch failed

Virgin Orbit and the Government are working together to investigate why the attempt to launch a rocket into orbit from UK soil ended in failure.

After taking off from Cornwall, the Virgin Orbit plane flew to 35,000ft over the Atlantic Ocean where it jettisoned the rocket containing nine small satellites towards space.

Organisers of the Start Me Up mission said an “anomaly” with the system meant the LauncherOne rocket – which was carrying a number of satellites with a variety of civil and defence applications – failed to orbit.

However, the horizontal launch from Spaceport Cornwall is being hailed a success.

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Grant Shapps said the Government would work closely with Virgin Orbit to investigate the failure.

In a statement to MPs, the Business Secretary said: “Last night, Virgin Orbit attempted the first orbital launch from Spaceport Cornwall.

“Unfortunately, the launch was unsuccessful.

“We will work closely with Virgin Orbit as they investigate what caused the failure in the coming days and weeks. While a failed launch 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 in the next year.”

The unsuccessful orbit, however, saw the loss of the payload and the rocket, which was likely to burn up on re-entry to earth, but was projected to land over water.

SCIENCE Spaceport
(PA Graphics)

Matt Archer, from the UK Space Agency, said the satellite load was insured and Virgin Orbit would recover its losses.

“The rocket will probably break up, not all of it will burn up, but certainly that’s what they will be tracking at the moment and making sure that it is coming down safely,” he said.

“The trajectory that it was on shouldn’t be anywhere near land.”

Steve Double, MP for St Austell and Newquay, said the failure of LauncherOne to reach orbit was “disappointing” but claimed it was still a “great achievement”.

He said, in a statement released on Tuesday: “After successfully taking off from the runway at Spaceport Cornwall, which has after many months of hard work been transformed into the world’s newest space launch operation centre, Cosmic Girl successfully released the rocket, LauncherOne.”

He added: “While it is disappointing that the satellites didn’t quite reach their intended target because of a technical failure, it reminds us that space is not easy and, if it was, everyone would be doing it.

“We have achieved so much and I am confident we will go again in the coming weeks and be successful.”

Among the satellites that have been lost were two cubesats owned by the Ministry of Defense’s (MOD) Defense Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL).

Co-funded by Airbus Defence and Space who designed  them jointly with In-Space Missions, they were going to support MOD science and technology (S&T) activities both in orbit and on the ground through the development of ground systems focused at DSTL’s site near Portsmouth.

DSTL tweeted: “We are saddened at the loss of LauncherOne and share the disappointment of all who have worked so hard to get us this far.

“We will work with our partners to enable continuation of our research programme.

“This is (a) poignant reminder that working in the space domain is difficult.”

Another satellite that did not enter orbit was DOVER, developed by RHEA Group in the UK –  the company’s first satellite in its 30-year history.

The satellite is being co-funded through the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Navigation Program (NAVISP) and built by Open Cosmos of the United Kingdom.

It was a SmallSat that was created as a pathfinder for resilient global navigation satellite systems.

Emma Jones, UK business director at RHEA, said: “RHEA is very disappointed in the failure of LauncherOne but we still see this mission as a success.

“We have a very innovative mission design that will be recreated, and we know the UK space sector can work together to deliver against tight timescales and demonstrate the passion, drive and commitment of the UK space community.

“Although disappointing, it is just a stepping stone to the next success.”