First Virgin Orbit U.K. launch fails

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Updated 7 a.m. Eastern Jan. 10 with Virgin Orbit statement.

SEATTLE — Virgin Orbit’s first launch from the United Kingdom failed to reach orbit Jan. 9, dealing a high-profile setback to a company that has been struggling financially.

Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747 aircraft took off from Spaceport Cornwall in southwestern England at about 5:02 p.m. Eastern on the company’s “Start Me Up” mission, the sixth LauncherOne mission for the company but the first to fly from a location other than Mojave Air and Space Port.

The aircraft flew to its designated drop location over the Atlantic Ocean off the southern coast of Ireland and released the LauncherOne rocket at approximately 6:11 p.m. Eastern. While telemetry during the live webcast of the launch was unreliable, reporting what appeared to be spurious speed and altitude figures at times, the company reported seven minutes later that the rocket’s upper stage and payloads had reached orbit.

“LauncherOne has once again successfully reached Earth orbit!” the company announced in a tweet it later deleted. “Our mission isn’t over yet, but our congratulations to the people of the UK! This is already the first-ever orbital mission from British soil – an enormous achievement by @spacegovuk and their partners in government!”

The launch then appeared to be in a coast phase before a second burn of the upper stage’s NewtonFour engine, followed by payload deployment. But nearly a half-hour after the announcement of reaching orbit, the company suddenly revealed the launch had instead failed.

“We appear to have an anomaly that has prevented us from reaching orbit. We are evaluating the information,” the company announced. The company provided no other information about the anomaly, including at what state of flight it took place and why the company incorrectly reported reaching orbit. It did confirm that that the Boeing 747 had landed safely back at Spaceport Cornwall.

In a statement early Jan. 10, Virgin Orbit said the anomaly took place during the flight of the second stage of the rocket when traveling at 17,700 kilometers per hour, less than two-thirds of orbital velocity, but offered no other details about the problem.

“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,” Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said in the statement.

The Start Me Up mission carried nine small satellites that the rocket was to deploy into a sun-synchronous orbit at about 555 kilometers altitude. The launch was procured by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, with the primary payload a pair of cubesats called Prometheus-2 built by the Defence Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL) of the U.K. Ministry of Defence.

Other payloads on the launch were a pair of cubesats called CIRCE developed by DSTL and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory; a navigation technology demonstration cubesat called DOVER built by Open Cosmos; ForgeStar-0, the first satellite for Space Forge, a space manufacturing startup based in Wales; IOD-3 AMBER, the first in a constellation of maritime domain awareness satellites for U.K. company Horizon Technologies; the STORK-6 imaging cubesat for Polish company SatRevolution; and AMAN, the first cubesat for the government of Oman.

The mission had a high profile because it was the first orbital launch attempt to take place from the United Kingdom, part of a strategy by the British government to develop an “end-to-end” space industry. The launch attracted a large crowd to the spaceport, even though there was little to see beyond an aircraft taking off at night.

“Incredible work has gone into the UK’s first ever launch of an orbital satellite tonight. Good luck to the entire team,” tweeted U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hours before the launch.

“We have shown the UK is capable of launching into orbit, but the launch was not successful in reaching the required orbit,” Matt Archer, director of commercial spaceflight at the U.K. Space Agency, said in Virgin Orbit’s statement about the failure. “Despite this, 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.”

The launch comes after four consecutive successful launches of LauncherOne, all from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, between January 2021 and July 2022. The company’s first LauncherOne launch, in May 2020, failed to reach orbit when the rocket’s first-stage engine shut down shortly after ignition.

The failure comes at a precarious time for Virgin Orbit, which has struggled to increase its launch rate and generate revenue. The company, in a Nov. 7 earnings call, reported it closed the third quarter with $71 million in cash, after reporting negative free cash flow of $52.5 million. The company raised $25 million from Virgin Group in early November and another $20 million from Virgin Investments Limited, an investment arm of the Virgin Group, Dec. 20.

In that Nov. 7 earnings call, the company said it would at least double its launch rate in 2023, at a time when the company was expecting to perform three launches in 2022. The company ended 2022 with only two launches after pushing back the Start Me Up mission to January.