Virgin Orbit's First Test Launch Falls Short of Orbit

Virgin Orbit's first launch of its LauncherOne rocket fell short of orbit immediately after release from the carrier jet. Elon Musk expressed his sympathies.
Brad Bergan

Virgin Orbit's debut of an air-launched rocket didn't make it to orbit today after a failed first attempt, according to a Virgin Orbit tweet.


Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne mission falls short of orbit

The company — part of Richard Branson's Virgin Group, expected to send its LauncherOne rocket into orbit for the first time on Monday, May 25, during a test mission called Launch Demo. But something went wrong immediately following LauncherOne's separation from its carrier plane, called Cosmic Girl.

"We've confirmed a clean release from the aircraft. However, the mission terminated shortly into the flight. Cosmic Girl and our flight crew are safe and returning to base," read the company's tweet.

Elon Musk's sympathies for failed flight

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk was quick to offer his sympathies in a reply-tweet: "Sorry to hear that. Orbit is hard. Took us four attempts with Falcon 1."

UPDATE May 25, 5:30 PM EDT: Cosmic Girl, LauncherOne, failure to launch

Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne flew together several times before, on "captive carry tests, and the plane even released a rocket once in the past during an unpowered drop test in July 2019. But this test — called Launch Demo — was the first time the new rocket attempted to rocket into orbit.

The story started just before 3:00 PM EDT on Monday when Cosmic Girl took off from the Mojave Air and Space Port in Southern California — with the 21-meter-long (70-foot-long) LauncherOne rocket holstered under one of its wings.

Cosmic Girl's flight path took it west, and then turned southwest as it neared a drop point 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of the Channel Islands. Roughly 50 minutes into the flight, Cosmic Girl entered the launch zone and released the two-stage LauncherOne from a nosebleed altitude above the Pacific Ocean.

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UPDATE May 25, 5:40 PM EDT: LauncherOne's initial flight plan and analysis

The plan was for the rocket to fire up a first-stage Newton Three engine for a three-minute burn. Then the upper stage was set to separate from the first stage, and power up a Newton Four Engine — blasting the dummy payload the rest of the distance to low-Earth orbit (LEO).

Typically, debut launches like Virgin Orbit's fail roughly 50% of the time. This is why the company didn't want to risk loading a pricey operational satellite on board.

"It's essentially a nice-looking inert mass that's allowed us to practice all those things we wanted to practice," said Will Pomerantz, Virgin Orbit's vice president of special projects, to reporters in a teleconference last Saturday, reports

Pomerantz' inert mass wouldn't have flown for long. Its initial destination aimed low enough in the Earth's atmosphere for drag to slow the craft's velocity, and pull the payload back down before long, ensuring the Launch Demo mission didn't add mass to the Earth's worsening space-junk collection, according to CEO Virgin Orbit Dan Hart during the telecon.

Doubtlessly, Pomerantz, Hart, and their Virgin Orbit colleagues would have preferred not to see the craft fall short of LEO, but their dreams weren't broken from one flawed test. Both men reiterated that today's primary goal was to amass as much data as possible about systems on Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne — so both may be reassessed and revised as necessary before taking next steps.