An attempt to make British space history by launching a rocket into orbit from British soil failed after an in-flight “anomaly” occurred.
After taking off from Cornwall, the Virgin Orbit plane flew 35,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean where it launched a rocket containing nine small satellites into space.
The organizers of the Start Me Up mission said the rocket – with various civil and defense uses – did not make it into orbit.
In a series of tweets, Virgin Orbit said: “It seems we have an anomaly that has prevented us from reaching orbit. We evaluate the information.
“As we know more, we’re deleting our previous tweet about reaching orbit. We will share more information as soon as possible.”
While engineers tried to determine what went wrong, the plane safely returned to the spaceport in Cornwall.
The plane, dubbed Cosmic Girl, took off from Cornwall Airport on Monday evening with hundreds of spectators and more than 75,000 watching the live stream of the event.
Named in homage to the 1981 Rolling Stones hit, the mission involved a modified Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 aircraft and a Virgin Orbit LauncherOne rocket.
It was originally planned to premiere before Christmas, but had to be pushed back to 2023 for technical and regulatory reasons.
The aircraft took off horizontally from the new facility at Cornwall Airport in Newquay, carrying a rocket under the wing.
To prepare Cosmic Girl for launch, the interior of the main deck was gutted of all seats and overhead storage to save weight.
The upper deck, which was the former premium and economy cabin, has been converted into a small mission control room where launch engineers can oversee the in-flight mission.
Once the Boeing 747 reached the drop-off point, the pilots flew it around a looping racetrack before launching the rocket.
Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, spoke of her devastation after the failure of the mission.
“It’s not the first time we’ve been hit, it’s by far the biggest but I feel good, we’ll get up and go again,” she said.
“It didn’t go exactly as planned, but we did everything we said we would do at the spaceport.
“We feel terrible, to be honest – I’m not going to lie.
“It’s gutting and we’ve all heard it at different times and there were tears when we met and it was very upsetting.
“We’re a family and we’ve been through a lot together. So when you go through something like this as a family, at least you have that support and we all understand each other.
“There’s not much else I can say other than it’s gutting, but they’re all fine.”
Matt Archer of the UK Space Agency said there was an “anomaly” in the second stage of the launch, the cause of which is being investigated.
“As a result, the rocket did not reach the required height to maintain its orbit or deploy satellites, therefore the mission was a failure,” he said.
“There will be an investigation in the coming days involving the government and various bodies, including Virgin Orbit, to ensure we understand what caused this technical failure and reassess what to do next.”
He said a first-stage burn would take the rocket to elementary orbit, but a second stage was needed to put it 500km above the earth
“It didn’t happen today, and you saw it reach space, but it didn’t reach the required orbit,” he said.
“While it’s obviously disappointing that the mission failed, we’re actually really proud of the fact that we’ve delivered so much here and created the conditions to launch here.
“We saw we could do it and we will want to do it again.”
The rocket probably burned up on its return to Earth, but it was supposed to land over water.