Britain’s historic attempt to launch the first commercial satellites from western Europe failed late on Monday night when Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket suffered an “anomaly” that prevented the spacecraft from reaching orbit.
The failed mission is a severe blow not just for the UK, which had hoped to beat rival spaceports in Norway and Sweden to claim the crown as Europe’s leading provider of launch services, but also to Virgin Orbit, which was aiming to prove that its horizontal launch system could fly satellites from anywhere in the world with a suitable runway.
It is also a significant setback for the seven customers that had satellites on the Virgin Orbit rocket, launched from Newquay airport, Cornwall, just after 10pm GMT.
These included a joint UK-US military research mission, Oman’s first orbital spacecraft designed for earth observation, a demonstrator satellite from UK start-up Space Forge, and a payload designed to track maritime activity from the UK’s Satellite Applications Catapult.
Virgin Orbit announced the “anomaly” 10 minutes before midnight, less than an hour after the rocket was launched from Cosmic Girl, a 747 jumbo jet converted to release LauncherOne at 35,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean.
The mission appeared to be going so smoothly that Virgin Orbit prematurely posted on Twitter that its rocket had reached orbit. Cosmic Girl had released the rocket without problem, and it had jettisoned its first stage.
But at 11.46pm, just as the jumbo jet was returning to land safely in Newquay, Virgin Orbit suddenly posted on Twitter: “We appear to have an anomaly that has prevented us from reaching orbit. We are evaluating the information.”
The company soon after halted the livestream that had attracted close to 50,000 viewers, thanking customers and Spaceport Cornwall for their efforts.
Alice Bunn, president of the trade body UKspace, said the failure was a disappointment. But it would not destroy Britain’s ambition to be a leading provider of launch services in Europe.
“Space is hard,” she said. “If you look back at the history of space, there have been quite a few failures. You work out what happened and then you get up and try again.”
The UK had taken a very commercial approach to developing space capability, she said, which would allow for swifter decisions on a renewed attempt than some European competitors.
It was unclear, however, how soon Virgin Orbit would be able to try again. An investigation is likely to be undertaken that will determine the cause and gravity of the failure. Last month saw the failure of Europe’s Vega-C midsized rocket and it is expected to be grounded for several months until an inquiry concludes.