Live broadcast video of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket after it was launched before the payload burned up (Image credit: Virgin Orbit/PA)
The historic first attempt to launch satellites from British soil reached space late at night but ultimately failed to reach its intended orbit.
After successfully taking off from the runway at Spaceport Cornwall and traveling to the designated drop zone, Cosmic Girl, a modified 747 that serves as the launcher for the LauncherOne system, successfully launched its rocket.
The rocket then ignited its engines, rapidly going hypersonic and reaching space.
The flight continued with successful stage separation and second stage ignition.
However, Virgin Orbit said that at some point during the rocket’s second-stage engine firing, while the rocket was traveling at more than 11,000 mph, the system experienced an anomaly that ended the mission prematurely.
The “cargo” was reported to have unexpectedly burnt down.
Still, Virgin Orbit said it was proud of what had been achieved, describing it as “an important step forward”.
A spokesperson said: “Although the mission has not reached its final orbit, reaching space and achieving many significant first-time achievements represents an important step forward.
“The flight effort brought together new partnerships and integrated collaboration with a wide range of partners, including the UK Space Agency, the Royal Air Force, the Civil Aviation Authority, the US Federal Aviation Administration, the National Reconnaissance Office and others, and showed that launching into space is possible from British soil”.
Of the five LauncherOne missions carrying payloads for private companies and government agencies, this one is the first to fail to deliver payloads to their exact destination orbit.
Dan Hart, CEO of Virgin Orbit, said: “While we are very proud of the many things we have achieved as part of this mission, we are aware that we have not provided our customers with the launch service they deserve.
“For the first time, this mission added layers of complexity that our team handled professionally; however, in the end, a technical failure seems to have prevented us from delivering the final orbit.
“We will work tirelessly to understand the nature of the failure, take corrective action and return to orbit as soon as we complete a full investigation and mission assurance process.”
Matt Archer, director of commercial spaceflight at the UK Space Agency, said: “Last night Virgin Orbit attempted its first orbital launch from Spaceport Cornwall.
“We showed that the UK is capable of launching into orbit, but failed to achieve the required orbit. We will be working closely with Virgin Orbit as they investigate what caused the anomaly in the coming days and weeks.
“While this result is disappointing, launching a spacecraft always carries significant risks. Despite this, the project has succeeded in establishing a horizontal launch capability at Spaceport Cornwall, and we continue to aim to become the leading provider of commercial small launch satellites in Europe by 2030, with vertical launches planned from Scotland.”
Melissa Thorpe, Head of Spaceport Cornwall, added: “We are incredibly proud of everything we have achieved with our partners and friends in the space industry in the UK and US – we have reached space – first in the UK.
“Unfortunately, we have learned that Virgin Orbit has experienced an anomaly, which means we have not completed a successful mission.
“Today we have inspired millions and we will continue to strive to inspire millions more. Not only our ambition, but also fortitude. Yes, space is tough, but we’re just getting started.”