Historic UK space launch ends in ultimate failure

The UK Space Agency has reiterated its determination to ensure the country becomes a leading player in the space sector despite the failure of the first satellite launch from the UK.

The first attempt to launch satellites from British soil reached space, but ultimately fell short of reaching its target orbit, and failed to discharge its payload of nine satellites into a low earth orbit.

After successfully taking off from the runway at Spaceport Cornwall and travelling to the designated drop zone, Virgin Orbit’s 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, Virgin Orbit explained, 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 mission did not achieve its final orbit, by reaching space and achieving numerous significant first-time achievements, it represents an important step forward,” said Virgin Orbit in a statement. “The effort behind the flight brought together new partnerships and integrated collaboration from a wide range of partners, including 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.

Matt Archer, director of commercial spaceflight at the UK Space Agency, said while the outcome of the launch was disappointing the UK would continue in its efforts to establish itself as Europe’s leading space centre by the end of the decade.

“Last night, Virgin Orbit attempted the first orbital launch from Spaceport Cornwall,” he said. “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.”

Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit CEO, added: “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.”

The head of Spaceport Cornwall, Melissa Thorpe, said the spaceport was only beginning in its efforts to establish regular launches.

“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,” she explained. “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.”

Shares in Virgin Orbit took a dive on news of the failure, with Susannah Streeter, senior investment and markets analyst, Hargreaves Lansdown explaining the unsuccessful launch was a blow but was far for terminal when it came to the UK’s space ambitions .

‘’Virgin Orbit shares rose like a rocket but dropped disappointingly back down to earth after the failure of the satellite launch in Cornwall. There had been high hopes that the operation would be the start of a brighter future for Virgin following the troubles which have beset the company since it became a publicly traded company, following the SPAC merger with Next Gen Acquisition in 2021. Shares have fallen by more than 23% in pre-market trading reflecting investors’ deep disappointment. The cash burn rate for the company has been huge, and the prospects for revenue have been significantly set back. While space may have been heralded as the new investment frontier, the ventures clearly come with a huge amount of risk.

“This is a major set-back for Virgin Orbit and for Cornwall’s ambitions as a new launchpad for space ventures, but the problems may not be unsurmountable. The first stages of the operation appeared to go without hitch, with Rocket One beginning its ascent into orbit after detaching from the Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl aircraft, but it appears an anomaly with the upper section of the rocket, 25 minutes later, led to the mission being aborted and the loss of the satellites. It is likely that fresh missions will be attempted once full investigations have been completed. The UK Space Agency was heavily involved in the project appears determined to press on and Virgin Orbit has also pledged to keep going and return to orbit, despite this technical failure, once the fault has been rectified. Given the initial launch from Newquay airport also progressed well, the aborted mission is hugely disappointing but doesn’t not fully dim Newquay’s prospects as a future space hub.  However, as investment case, the flight ahead for space looks set to be volatile.’’

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