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Virgin Orbit elaborates on potential cause of LauncherOne failure

LauncherOne at Spaceport Cornwall
Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne at Spaceport Cornwall being prepared for the "Start Me Up" mission. Company CEO Dan Hart said Feb. 7 that a problem with a minor component may have caused the launch to fail. Credit: Spaceport Cornwall

WASHINGTON — Virgin Orbit provided additional details about the likely cause of its LauncherOne failure last month but didn’t estimate when the vehicle will be ready to return to flight.

In a Feb. 14 statement, the company elaborated on comments made a week earlier by its chief executive, Dan Hart, who said at the SmallSat Symposium Feb. 7 that a filter in the rocket’s second stage propulsion system dislodged “and caused mischief downstream” that led to a premature shutdown of the engine before the rocket reached orbit.

Virgin Orbit said that the fuel filter for the second-stage NewtonFour engine had been dislodged from its normal position. The fuel pump downstream of that filter “operated at a degraded efficiency level,” reducing the amount of fuel reaching the engine. That, in turn, caused the engine to operate at a higher temperature than it was rated for.

The company said that components “downstream and in the vicinity” of the overheated engine malfunctioned, which led to the premature shutdown of the engine.

In the statement, Virgin Orbit noted that the investigation into the Jan. 9 launch failure is ongoing. “All potentially credible scenarios, including the one described above, are being investigated,” the company stated. “Numerous tests are underway to support the investigation and help lead to definitive conclusions.”

The company did not disclose when it expected that investigation to be complete, or when it would be ready to attempt another launch. It said that “all credible causes of the failure will be addressed” before the next launch, which will take place from Mojave Air and Space Port in California for an unidentified commercial customer.

“Our investigation is not yet complete; the team is hard at work and we’ll pursue the cause and contributors to wherever the system analysis takes us,” Hart said in the statement. “However, with many clear clues from extensive data assessment now understood, we are modifying our next rocket with a more robust filter and we are looking broadly to assure that all credible contributors to mission failure are rooted out and addressed.”

The company, publicly traded on Nasdaq, has not announced when it will release its financial results for the fourth quarter of 2022 and the full year. Shares in Virgin Orbit closed down nearly 2% at $1.58 Feb. 14, but rose in after-hours trading after the company released the statement on the status of the failure investigation.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...