Virgin Orbit thinks it knows why its first UK rocket launch failed

The space firm is now modifying its modified Boeing 747 "Cosmic Girl" aircraft to prevent a reoccurrence of the issue.
Chris Young
Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl.
Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl.

Virgin Orbit / Twitter 

An investigation into Virgin Orbit's failed attempt to perform the first-ever rocket launch from UK soil last month has concluded.

The reason for the failed launch highlights the complexity of rocket launches, which can even be derailed by a microscopic hair, as was almost the case with SpaceX's Crew-5 mission.

In the case of Virgin Orbit's "Start Me Up" mission last month, it was a damaged fuel filter that doomed what would have been a historic rocket launch.

Virgin Orbit's failed UK rocket launch

The "Start Me Up" mission took off aboard Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl aircraft at nighttime on January 9. Virgin Orbit eschews the traditional vertical rocket launch method in favor of launching a rocket from the left wing of Cosmic Girl — a modified Boeing 747.

The company claims this method allows greater flexibility and response time for time-sensitive space missions. The company emphasizes that it allows it to launch a rocket from almost anywhere in the world.

To date, Virgin Orbit has carried out four successful rocket launches from the US. However, on January 9, the company failed to launch from the UK for the first time. Shortly after Cosmic Girl took to the skies, the plane successfully dropped the 70-foot-long (21-meter) LauncherOne rocket attached to its left wing. But during LauncherOner's second-stage engine burn, the rocket suffered a fuel filter problem, leading to the loss of the rocket as well as all nine of the satellites it was carrying to orbit.

Virgin Orbit's modified Boeing 747 undergoes more modifications

In an update on Tuesday, February 14, Virgin Orbit announced that the fuel filter problem was the most likely cause of the launch failure. "The data is indicating that, from the beginning of the second stage first burn, a fuel filter within the fuel feedline had been dislodged from its normal position," the company's statement explained.

"Additional data shows that the fuel pump that is downstream of the filter operated at a degraded efficiency level, resulting in the Newton 4 engine being starved for fuel," Virgin Orbit added. "Performing in this anomalous manner resulted in the engine operating at a significantly higher than rated engine temperature."

This high temperature led to several components' malfunction, leading to "early thrust termination" on the second stage and the end of the mission.

Virgin Orbit announced it would continue to investigate in case any other issue comes to light. In the meantime, it will modify its existing rockets with "a more robust filter" to prevent the same issue from happening again. The next mission will take off from Mojave Air and Space Port, California, meaning we will likely have to wait some time to see the first rocket launch from UK soil.

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