Virgin Orbit’s attempt to make history by launching the first set of satellites from British soil Monday night did not go as planned, resulting in the loss of all nine satellites on board.
Cosmic Girl, a modified 747, taxied toward history as it took off at 5:02 pm ET from Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay, England, hoping to successfully christen a new spaceport. Once it reached 35,000 feet in the air, the aircraft deployed a rocket, called LauncherOne, which would then launch its payloads into space.
Tucked inside LauncherOne’s payload fairing were nine small satellites, representing seven different customers. The two-stage rocket is specially designed to horizontally launch small satellites into orbit. Rather than a traditional rocket, which lifts off vertically from a launch pad, the LauncherOne is engineered to be strapped to a plane and ignited at a certain altitude before depositing its payloads into their designated orbits.
The rocket’s first and second stages separated as planned, with the rocket’s upper stage completing a nearly five-minute burn before transitioning into a long coast ahead of payload deployment. After ignition, it soon became clear that something was not right.
“It appears that LauncherOne has suffered an anomaly, which will prevent us from making orbit on this mission,” Virgin Orbit’s Chris Relf, director of systems engineering and verification, said during a webcast of the mission. Details were not immediately available, but company officials shared that the anomaly resulted in the loss of all nine payloads on board the rocket.
LauncherOne carried nine small satellites inside its payload fairing, including payloads for the British Ministry of Defense, the British government, a Polish Cubesat, a satellite for the Sultanate of Oman and the US Naval Research Laboratory.
The mission, called “Start Me Up,” earns its name from the song by the legendary British band The Rolling Stones.
“I can’t think of a more perfect name for the first launch from the UK,” said Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire who founded the Virgin Atlantic airline and the Virgin Galactic aerospace company. Branson is also part owner of Virgin Orbit.
According to Branson, all of Virgin Orbit’s launches have been named to recognize iconic moments in Virgin’s long musical history, such as when the company signed The Rolling Stones. To date, Virgin Orbit has five launches under its belt, all of which have lifted off from its US-based spaceport in California.
Following an unsuccessful first test flight in May 2020, the subsequent four missions were successful, with the company deploying 33 satellites into orbit. Unfortunately, the company adds another failed flight to its records.
The technique of horizontally launching a spacecraft from a rocket that was strapped to an airliner was developed more than 20 years ago as a low-cost means of launching smaller satellites. Traditional rockets were too expensive to launch certain payloads, and this provided a new means of reaching space.
However, with small satellite launches on the rise, this could prove to be the first of many launches for the UK and Virgin Orbit. This type of mission offers flexibility to launch from anywhere that has an airstrip and can guarantee the satellites make it to their intended orbits. It also offers another option for European customers who have faced Ariane 6 delays, the grounding of Vega rockets after a failed launch attempt and the loss of access to Russian Soyuz vehicles following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“When you look at the way that the low Earth orbit economy is developing, it’s the place that everybody is looking to put their satellites, whether it be for climate change, observation or urban development, or for security purposes,” said Ian Annett. Deputy CEO of the UK Space Agency, ahead of the launch. “The ability to access LEO with micro-launches is definitely not a static market — it is one that is continuing to grow.”
To that end, it took 20 million pounds ($24 million) to transform the tiny Newquay airport into Spaceport Cornwall. “The foundations were already here,” Melissa Thorpe, CEO of Spaceport Cornwall, said ahead of Monday’s launch. “We have one of the longest runways in the UK, and just the team to turn it into a spaceport.”
Thorpe also said that the team worked to reinforce taxiways and build a Space Systems Integration Facility where customers could mate their respective satellites to the launcher.
But Spaceport Cornwall is just one of seven locations across the UK that the country’s space agency awarded funding to in 2017 as part of an effort to develop spaceport sites specifically for launching small payloads into low-Earth orbit. Other launch facilities include one in the north of Scotland as well as the Shetland Islands.
Thorpe says that despite the failure of this inaugural launch from the UK, it could still inspire other European countries to invest in spaceports and join the aerospace industry. Virgin Orbit officials have said that the company wants to establish itself as having the ability to launch from anywhere a 747 can land.
But in order to do that, it needs to prove that it can be successfully launched from multiple locations.