Virgin Orbit pledges to return for new UK satellite launch

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit said on Thursday it had begun “active discussions” about returning to the UK later this year for another attempt at launching satellites into orbit, despite Monday’s failed mission from Britain’s first spaceport in Cornwall.

The US-based company said the next launch of its mobile launching system would be from its home base at the Mojave air and space port in California, when it had identified and corrected the causes of Monday night’s failure.

But it “also anticipates returning to Spaceport Cornwall for additional launches”, Virgin Orbit said in a statement. Discussions about launch opportunities “as soon as later this year” were under way with government and customers.

“We are all disappointed that we were not able to achieve full mission success and provide the launch service that our customers deserve,” said Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit chief executive. “I am confident that root cause and corrective actions will be determined in an efficient and timely manner.”

Virgin Orbit — in which Branson’s Virgin group holds a 75 per cent stake — was counting on Monday’s mission to prove that its mobile launch system could be taken to any suitable runway, offering rapid access to space for nations that previously have had to rely on other countries.

The system uses a converted 747 jumbo jet to carry a rocket to 35,000 feet altitude where it is released to continue its journey to space.

Shares in Virgin Orbit, which was listed just over a year ago through a merger with a special purpose acquisition vehicle, tumbled sharply on news of the failed mission. The shares are down 84 per cent over the past year.

The mission was also key to the UK’s ambition to take a share of the rapidly growing market for commercial satellite services from low earth orbit.

Increasingly, services such as high speed broadband, and climate monitoring will be delivered from this region of space. The UK, which has six other spaceports under development, had hoped to be the first country to launch a satellite from western Europe.

Virgin said Monday’s mission initially went as planned, with the first stage and fairing — the nose cone protecting the satellites — both separating as expected.

The rocket reached an altitude of about 180 kms above Earth, but the engine propelling the second stage carrying the satellites appeared to have cut out prematurely.

“This event ended the mission, with the rocket components and payload falling back to Earth within the approved safety corridor without ever achieving orbit,” the company said.

An investigation is now under way into the causes of the failure. Virgin has appointed Jim Sponnick, a veteran launch engineer who has supported missions for the US air force, Nasa and commercial customers, as co-investigator, along with its own head of technology development, Chad Foerster, to lead the inquiry.

“An extensive fault analysis and investigation and completion of all required corrective actions identified during the investigation will be completed prior to the next flight,” Virgin said.

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