LauncherOne at Spaceport Cornwall
Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne at Spaceport Cornwall being prepared for its first launch from the U.K. Credit: Spaceport Cornwall

WASHINGTON — Virgin Orbit’s chief executive said Feb. 7 that a problem with a relatively inexpensive part may be linked to the failure of the company’s latest launch last month.

Speaking on a panel at the SmallSat Symposium in Mountain View, California, Dan Hart said it was still premature to formally declare the root cause of the failed Jan. 9 flight of the company’s LauncherOne rocket on the “Start Me Up” mission from Spaceport Cornwall in England. However, he said while that investigation continues, evidence was pointing to a component in the rocket’s second stage engine.

“Everything points to, right now, a filter that was clearly there when we assembled the rocket but was not there as the second stage engine started, meaning it was dislodged and caused mischief downstream,” he said.

He didn’t go into details about that component, other than to say that it was not an expensive item. “This is like a $100 part that took us out.”

Hart said the company would no longer use that filter and was “looking broadly” at other potential fixes. He did not disclose a timeframe for completing the investigation, which is being overseen jointly by the U.K.’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

Virgin Orbit, though, is preparing its next LauncherOne rocket for a flight that will take place from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, which hosted all the previous LauncherOne missions before last month’s U.K. launch. “We’re in integration for our next flight and looking forward to flying from Mojave over the coming weeks.”

Hart did not discuss the financial status of the company amid concerns about available cash. The company has raised $55 million in debt since November from Virgin Investments Limited, the investment arm of Virgin Group, but its recent cash burn rate suggests it could run out of funds as soon as the second quarter.

Publicly, he was upbeat about the company’s future plans. “For us, it’s about ramping this year. We see a market that continues to develop,” he said. “We will see demand grow and we need to grow with it.”

Vega C investigation update

Virgin Orbit was not the only company on the panel that has suffered a recent launch failure. Avio is the prime contractor for the Vega C rocket, which failed to reach orbit on a Dec. 20 launch, destroying two Pléiades Neo imaging satellites for Airbus Defence and Space.

Giulio Ranzo, chief executive of Avio, said he could not comment on the investigation, led by Arianespace and the European Space Agency, since it is still in progress. “It will be released very soon, though.”

He confirmed, though, that the failure was linked to the rocket’s second stage, which is different from the second stage on the original Vega rocket. That could allow the Vega to return to flight first while modifications are made to the Vega C.

“The former version of the rocket is unaffected by this accident,” he said. “In 2023, we need to come back to flight with Vega C. We do have the luxury of using the previous version of the rocket as well to fulfill the market demand.”

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...