It started off so well, but the UK’s first satellite launch went awry on Monday night when the LauncherOne rocket failed to reach the correct orbit.
Just before midnight, Virgin Orbit announced that an anomaly had occurred which meant that a rocket containing nine satellites was headed back to Earth.
The rocket was expected to burn up during reentry, destroying all satellites on board.
The evening got off to a successful start as LauncherOne took off tethered to a modified Boeing 747 nicknamed “Cosmic Girl” while Spaceport Cornwall launched Rolling Stones Start Me Up.
Thousands gathered near Newquay Airport’s windy, rain-drenched runway to watch the launch of Cosmic Girl, creating a festival atmosphere with tickets for the event selling out faster than Glastonbury.
The silent success disco was already underway and the champagne was bursting before Virgin announced that the mission had failed.
Commenting after the initial takeoff, Richard Branson said, “As the song says, once we start, we never stop.”
But in less than two hours, the mission stalled when the rocket failed to reach the orbit needed to deploy the payload of nine satellites.
British astronaut Tim Peake said the result was “very disappointing” but “getting into space is tough – and we’ll learn valuable lessons from it.”
Virgin initially tweeted that LauncherOne had reached orbit, but shortly before midnight it updated its feed saying: “We are removing our previous tweet about reaching orbit. We will share more information as soon as possible.”
The company said it was investigating the problem but canceled the live stream shortly after admitting to the outage.
Virgin said part of the Cosmic Girl mission was a success and the plane returned safely to Newquay Airport before midnight.
The plane took off at 22:02 GMT, flying about 50 miles off the south-west coast of Ireland before firing a rocket at 23:10 GMT.
The LauncherOne rocket would pass Antarctica and Australia before finally burning up to bring it into low Earth orbit to release its payload.
Matt Archer, director of commercial space at the UK Space Agency, said the rocket would likely burn up or crash over the sea and the satellites would be destroyed.
He said: “The second stage had an anomaly. We don’t know what caused it. However, as a result, the rocket failed to reach the altitude required to maintain the orbit or deploy the satellites, and thus the mission was a failure.
“We will probably break up, not everything will burn up, so they will follow the trajectory. The launch trajectory itself passed over unpopulated areas such as the North Atlantic before continuing south.
“There will be an investigation in the coming days involving various bodies, including Virgin Orbit, to ensure you understand what caused this technical failure.
“I’m disappointed, but we’ll dust ourselves off and go again.”
A successful launch would see Britain become the first country in Europe to launch satellites. home land. The European Space Agency (ESA) must currently use a spaceport in French Guiana.
This would allow the UK to join the exclusive club of just 10 countries capable of putting rockets and satellites into orbit.
Currently, only a few countries have the capability to launch into orbit from their home turf: the United States, Russia, India, Iran, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China and French Guiana for the European Space Agency.
This is the latest problem for a mission that was supposed to launch last year but encountered months of delays while waiting to obtain a license from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which has never before launched into space.
Monday’s launch was Virgin Orbit’s sixth mission, and all previous launches had been from California’s Mojave Desert, and there were concerns that British weather could prove difficult to negotiate.
A failed mission is devastating for companies with satellites on board, many of which are small start-ups.
Satellites on board the rocket included ForgeStar, the first satellite developed in Wales that can produce computer chips and crystals in a weightless space environment.
Two small CubeSats operated by the UK’s Defense Science and Technology Laboratory (Dstl) and the US Naval Research Laboratory were also sent to monitor space weather.
The rocket also includes Oman’s first ever orbital mission – an Earth observation satellite – as well as a satellite designed in a garage in Reading that would help catch people smugglers smuggling illegal migrants.