Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit crashes during launch

Virgin Orbit launched nine small satellites on a rocket dropped from a 747 jumbo jet south of Ireland on Monday, but the booster failed while ascending into space and payloads were lost, the company said.

The 747 “Cosmic Girl” jet took off from Newquay Airport in Cornwall near the UK’s south-west coast in what was announced as the first orbital launch from the UK and Western Europe.

The redesigned Virgin Atlantic airliner, with its 70-foot, 57,000-pound LauncherOne rocket stowed under its left wing, took off just after 5 p.m. EST, cheered by airport workers, local residents, and government officials as it slowly ascended to the west and disappeared from view over the Atlantic Ocean.

Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit

After reaching an altitude of about 35,000 feet off the south coast of Ireland, the aircraft made a racetrack-like loop around the drop point while engineers made final checks and verified the rocket was ready for launch.

Then, approaching the drop point for the second time, LauncherOne was released. As the 747 pitched sharply to provide plenty of ground clearance, the rocket’s first stage engine ignited with 80,000 pounds of thrust to begin its southwestern climb into space.

Three minutes later, the first stage descended and the climb continued under the power of the second stage engine providing 5,000 pounds of thrust. Virgin confirmed the stage separation and ignition of the second-stage engine, but it was unclear if combustion had completed as planned or if there was a problem after the engine was shut down.

After several long moments of silence, a Virgin webcast commentator said, “it appears LauncherOne has suffered an anomaly that will prevent us from orbiting on this mission.” The company then tweeted the same, adding “we are evaluating the information.”

The company initially tweeted that the rocket had reached orbit, but then posted an update saying: “Once we know more, we’re removing our previous tweet about reaching orbit. We will share more information when possible.”

On board for Monday’s launch were nine small satellites representing a mix of government and private sector projects in the UK, US, Oman, Poland and the European Space Agency.

The Aman satellite, the first in Oman, was a small Earth observation platform built in cooperation with SatRevolution, a Polish developer of “new space” satellites. The British Defense Science and Technology Laboratory and the US Naval Research Laboratory sponsored two CubeSats to study the ionosphere.

The UK and the European Space Agency collaborated on a satellite known as DOVER, designed to test advanced global navigation technology, while Space Forge of Wales developed an experimental platform to test Earth return technology.

A Virgin 747 took off from southwest Britain and launched a LauncherOne rocket south of Ireland.  / Source: Virgin Orbit

A Virgin 747 took off from southwest Britain and launched a LauncherOne rocket south of Ireland. / Source: Virgin Orbit

The manifesto was complemented by IOD-3 Amber, the first of more than 20 UK-built satellites designed to provide space-based ‘marine domain awareness’, and STORK-6, the fourth in a series of multispectral Earth SatRevolution Cube observation satellites.

Virgin’s LauncherOne, built in the United States, made five flights ahead of Monday’s launch. The initial dummy payload flight was a failure, but a further four missions with various “small satellites” were successful.

All of these flights originated from Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Virgin founder Richard Branson looked to Monday’s flight to demonstrate its unique ability to launch small satellites from anywhere in the world.

“Europe has never sent a satellite into space and one nice thing about using the Virgin Atlantic 747 is that we can fly to any country and we can put satellites in space and we can do it in an instant,” he said before the start.

But not quite yet.

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