UK rocket failure is a failure, not a blockade

Rocket

The failure of the first ever satellite mission launched from British soil is a failure, but not a roadblock to that country’s space plans.

The rocket suffered an “anomaly” late Monday night after being launched by a jumbo jet operated by US-based Virgin Orbit.

The satellites it was carrying could not be released and were lost.

But plans for the UK to become a satellite launching nation are well advanced.

Launches are planned in Scotland, from Sutherland and Shetland.

This would be a more traditional type of launch system where the rocket flies straight off the ground.

The mission was hailed as a milestone for British space, marking the birth of an indigenous launch industry. The ambition is to make the country a global player – from the production of satellites to the construction of rockets and the creation of new spaceports.

The deputy director general of the UK space agency, Ian Annett, said it showed “how difficult” it was to get into orbit – but he predicted further launches over the next 12 months.

“We get up, we go back, we try again, that defines us,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

The crowds that gathered Monday night at Spaceport Cornwall, where the jumbo jet took off, were deeply disappointed.

“Any kind of failure is how you respond to it, so for us, it’s about coming back right away,” said Melissa Thorpe, who runs the spaceport. “We hear that we support and bring back Virgin and we hope to deliver another rocket here in the near future and just keep going.”

But it was very clear that Spaceport Cornwall was trying to create a business model that wasn’t based solely on Virgin Orbit.

It wants to be the hub of a cluster of space companies, and so far it seems to be working. His new office center is overcrowded. And of course the spaceport is just one part of the larger Newquay airport complex.

Establishing the spaceport and mission cost around £20 million. This includes money from local authorities in Cornwall and national funding through the UK Space Agency.

Virgin Orbit shares fell more than 20 percent in pre-market trading on Tuesday after a failed launch.

Graphics showing the stages of the rocket.  1. First stage rocket launched successfully after dropping from Cosmic Girl 747 jet. 2. Second stage engine problem.  3. Satellites lost by a rocket

Graphics showing the stages of the rocket. 1. First stage rocket launched successfully after dropping from Cosmic Girl 747 jet. 2. Second stage engine problem. 3. Satellites lost by a rocket

The rocket ignited and seemed to ascend properly. But then word came from the company that the rocket had suffered an “anomaly”.

We have to wait for the official investigation, but it is already known that the Virgin Orbit rocket ran into trouble during the combustion of the engine on its upper stage.

The LauncherOne rocket is a two-stage vehicle, meaning it has two propulsion sections, one that should fire for about three minutes and then descend, and the other that should fire for about six minutes. Another second-stage maneuver would normally be required to fine-tune the orbit before the satellites are released to orbit the Earth.

The six-minute burn on the upper stage appears to be complete, but towards the end the rocket is not at the altitude it should be and seems to be falling rapidly. When the data stream finally stops in Virgin Orbit’s internet transmission, the vehicle is described as being only 75 km (245,000 feet) high.

It’s hard to judge much from an internet broadcast, and data often jumps as telemetry drops as the rocket finishes talking to one ground station without picking up the next communication point yet. But Virgin Orbit should have a ton of data to look at so engineers can find the cause of the “anomaly” and fix it.

Crowd

Tickets for the kick-off party have been stripped. There was great enthusiasm in the crowd

The Jumbo 747, which carried the rocket to launch altitude, has safely returned to Newquay Airport and is ready to be used on future missions already booked with Virgin Orbit.

The company only managed two flights last year and has a backlog of customer service it needs to get to space. Will be looking for a quick return to flight. The Virgin Orbit plant in Long Beach, California produces rockets on an assembly line.

All the rocket equipment from Monday’s flight – or at least any debris from the mission – is now probably resting at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. The rocket’s south-bound trajectory was carefully chosen to avoid populated areas in the event of a failure. Advance warnings have also been issued to aircraft and ships to stay away from obvious danger zones.

The first stage and the rocket’s fairing – the nose cone that protects the satellites through the dense lower atmosphere – would have landed off the coast of Portugal as planned anyway. A faulty second stage and those nine little satellites probably returned to Earth somewhere off the coast of Africa.

Virgin Orbit’s purchase cost exceeds $10 million. This one was bought by the UK-based US National Reconnaissance Office so that the US and UK governments could fly satellites containing technologies that will be of interest in defense and security in the future.

These included advanced radios to track illegal fishermen and smugglers at sea. Satellite manufacturers and operators would of course also invest heavily in their missions. However, it was said that the loads are insured.

Virgin Orbit is a young company trying to break into the highly competitive startup market.

Customers are very sensitive to the price of the launch, but even more so to the reliability of the vehicle making the launch. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket has already made six flights with two failures.

This is not unusual in an immature system, but with so many new rockets on the market, the history of successful launches is what stands out from the crowd. Being a young company, Virgin Orbit is in a growth phase where it is currently not making any money. On the contrary. There is an urgent need to return to effective and regular flying.

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