UK space launch: Historic rocket fails to reach orbit, scientists detect 'anomaly'

A converted Boeing 747 called Cosmic Girl successfully released the LauncherOne rocket, which failed to reach the target.
Deena Theresa
Virgin Orbit's carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl takes off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California with LauncherOne underwing in 2021.
Virgin Orbit's carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl takes off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California with LauncherOne underwing in 2021.

Virgin Orbit 

Virgin Orbit's first-ever orbital launch from British soil failed on Tuesday due to an "anomaly."

The historic mission that took off from Cornwall comprised a converted Boeing 747 called Cosmic Girl. During the flight, it successfully launched its 70-foot rocket called LauncherOne, which was carrying a payload of nine satellites that were to be released into low orbital positions 300 or more miles above the Earth.

Unfortunately, the rocket fell short of reaching its target orbit and was lost, along with the satellites, Virgin Orbit said in a release.

The U.K. Space Agency has mentioned that they were expected to burn or break up over the north Atlantic. Meanwhile, the 747 has returned to Cornwall.

The second-stage engine had an anomaly

Matt Archer, the launch program director at the U.K. Space Agency, told BBC News that the upper segment of the rocket had an issue.

"The second-stage engine had a technical anomaly and didn't reach the required orbit. That's now part of an investigation by Virgin Orbit and a number of government departments," he told BBC News.

"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," Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit CEO, said in a statement.

The historic launch saw the presence of more than 2,000 spectators

Flown by RAF test pilot Sqn Ldr Matthew Stannard, Cosmic Girl took off just after 10 pm at Spaceport Cornwall and reached its destination south of Ireland. It followed a looping "racetrack" pattern as the crew awaited a final go/no-go call.

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While more than 2,000 spectators and VIPs had gathered at Cornwall Newquay Airport to watch the 747 leave, up to 75,000 people watched a live stream of the flight. The "go" call came at 11.10 pm, and LauncherOne was released at 35,000 feet (10,700 meters). The rocket ignited its engines, quickly going hypersonic and successfully reaching space. The flight then continued through successful stage separation and ignition of the second stage. The satellites were due to be released from LauncherOne an hour later.

However, 28 minutes later, it was evident that something was amiss. With the rocket traveling at a speed of more than 11,000 miles per hour, the system experienced an anomaly, ending the mission prematurely, said a release.

A rocket launch in Britain would have completed the picture

For the longest time, British companies have manufactured satellites but have had to rely on foreign rockets to launch them into space.

And so, hopes were naturally high for Virgin Orbit's orbital launch.

Emma Jones, head of U.K. business development for RHEA Group, a space security firm, which also has a satellite on the Virgin Orbit rocket, told The New York Times that having launch sites in Britain "makes a huge difference in terms of being able to develop satellites and to fly them."

"Space is hard, but we are only just getting started"

Melissa Thorpe, the head of Spaceport Cornwall, said: "We are so incredibly proud of everything we have achieved with our partners and friends across the space industry here in the U.K. and in the U.S. – we made it to space – a U.K. first."

"Yes, space is hard, but we are only just getting started," Thorpe added.

Despite the disappointing result, "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," said Archer.