Virgin Orbit's carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl takes off from Mojave Air and Space Port for the company's first Launch Demo. May 25, 2020. Photo credit: Virgin Orbit/Pauline Acalin.
A Virgin Orbit rocket failed to launch a payload of satellites into orbit from the United Kingdom on Monday, marking a setback for the cutting-edge commercial spaceflight venture started by British entrepreneur Richard Branson.
Named “Start Me Up” after the famous 1981 Rolling Stones song, Monday’s mission intended to place into orbit commercial and government payloads from several countries, including a pair of British military CubeSats intended for a scientific mission, a Polish CubeSat, and the Sultanate of Oman’s first satellite.
For Monday’s mission, Virgin Orbit collaborated with the UK Space Agency, the Royal Air Force, the British Civil Aviation Authority, and the US Federal Aviation Administration — as well as the US National Reconnaissance Office, the agency responsible for America’s spy satellites. After four successful orbital launches from California’s Mojave Air & Space Port, the Start Me Up mission was to be the first orbital launch from the United Kingdom, as well as from Western Europe.
Cosmic Girl releases LauncherOne mid-air for the first time during a July 2019 drop test. Photo credit: Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson.
Virgin Orbit’s carrier plane, a modified Boeing 747-400 jumbo jet named Cosmic Girl, took off at about 5:02 p.m. from Spaceport Cornwall, located near the town of Newquay on England’s southwestern coast. Carrying the 70-foot-long LauncherOne rocket on a wing pylon, Cosmic Girl climbed to an altitude above 30,000 feet at a launch area off Ireland’s southwest coast.
A little more than an hour after takeoff, the LauncherOne system released from its fairing, and the first stage ignited and propelled the rocket and its payload into space at hypersonic speed. About three minutes later, the second stage engine ignited and burned for about five minutes. After its initial burn, the second stage was supposed to complete a short second burn to correct its orbit before releasing the payloads. Yet, during the second stage’s initial burn, the “system experienced an anomaly, ending the mission prematurely,” Virgin Orbit reported on its website. None of the payloads successfully reached their orbits.
“While we are very proud of the many things that we successfully achieved as part of this mission, we are mindful that we failed to provide our customers with the launch service they deserve,” Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said in a release.
The LauncherOne rocket for Virgin Orbit's Launch Demo 2 mission prepares for shipment to Mojave Air and Space Port. August 2020. Photo credit: Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson.
The air launch method is generally less expensive than using a launch pad on the ground. By negating the need to propel a rocket from a static standstill on the ground, the LauncherOne rocket can put payloads into space with less fuel. Also, the air launch concept is much more flexible than ground-launched rockets — the whole system can be made ready for launch on short notice and is able to avoid inclement weather.
According to Virgin Orbit’s website: “In addition to improving the payload capacity of the rocket, this technique allows the LauncherOne system to be the world’s most flexible and responsive launch service — flying on short notice and from a wide variety of locations to access any orbit.”
Virgin Orbit designs and manufactures its LauncherOne rockets in Long Beach, California. LauncherOne’s Demo 2 launch on Jan. 17, 2021, marked the first time a liquid-fueled, air-launched rocket reached orbit.
Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket ignites moments after being released by carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl for the company's Launch Demo 2 mission. January 17th, 2021. Photo credit: Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson.
Producing about 80,000 pounds of thrust, the liquid-fueled rocket can put payloads of up to about 1,100 pounds into orbit, according to a company fact sheet. That’s far less than the 141,000-pound payloads that SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket is capable of launching into low Earth orbit. However, many industry experts say commercial satellite-launch ventures will increasingly cater to smaller satellites, which serve a variety of functions.
Describing Monday’s failed orbital flight, Virgin Orbit reported on its website: “Though the mission did not achieve its final orbit, by reaching space and achieving numerous significant first-time achievements, it represents an important step forward.”