The cause of the failed launch of a Virgin Orbit rocket from Spaceport Cornwall was investigated by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) on Tuesday amid speculation that the nose cone had not been fired on schedule.
Shortly before midnight, Virgin Orbit announced that an anomaly had occurred which meant that although the LauncherOne rocket entered space, it did not reach the correct height needed to deploy the nine satellites on board.
Experts told The Telegraph that telemetry and the rocket’s trajectory suggested it had slowed down, which may have been because the nose cone – or fairing – did not clear cleanly.
The extra weight would prevent LauncherOne from gaining the speed and altitude needed to enter a high enough orbit to launch satellites. While the rocket needed to reach 17,000 mph, it only reached 10,000 mph.
The fairing protects the payload during the rocket’s flight through the atmosphere, and even if it reached the appropriate altitude, it could not deliver the payload to orbit.
The CAA is working with Virgin Orbit and the Department for Transport to investigate what happened.
Other theories include a petroleum fuel mixing problem that may have prevented the second stage rocket from firing properly.
The UK Space Agency (UKSA) reported that the second stage ignited and fired for about a minute when it should have fired for three minutes. For the first time, Virgin has a problem with the second stage that takes the rocket to its final orbit.
But it’s not clear if the rocket itself stopped firing or if Virgin Orbit pulled the plug after realizing the trajectory had been turned off.
The team is also considering an engine problem and electrical faults.
Matt Archer, director of commercial space at UKSA, said: “We know the rocket didn’t take as long as it should have. The second stage caught fire, so he took off, but as a result, he did not gain the altitude at which he should have.
“So it could be a whole bunch of things, is it just engine performance, it could be something not burning as it should, it could be an issue with the fairings saying it doesn’t have enough traction and it’s losing altitude.
“It actually ran for about a minute and should have been running for about three. We have a team and a space agency working to understand its orbit.
“It has already reached 10,000 miles. Many of them will disintegrate and burn into the atmosphere. So we don’t know if any of this will drop, but given the trajectory that goes over the poles and over water, I don’t expect a problem.”
Teams are currently looking for signs of the rocket re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere and are not sure if it has already fallen. The orbit it reached was so low that it could not stay afloat for more than a few days without being pulled back to the surface.
The UKSA said that although the rocket did not reach altitude to launch the satellite, it did enter space in what counts as the first successful launch from British soil.
“Did we achieve first launch, yes we did,” added Archer. “We’ve shown we can start from Cornwall, that’s an absolute fact.”
The evening got off to a successful start with LauncherOne taking off from Cornwall Spaceport, attached to a converted Boeing 747 nicknamed ‘Space Girl’.
The plane took off at 22:02 GMT, amidst clear, dry skies, and flew about 50 miles off the south-west coast of Ireland, where it fired 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.
Virgin initially tweeted that LauncherOne had reached orbit, but shortly before midnight it updated its feed saying:
The initial cause of the failure will likely be announced within a few days.
A spokesperson for the Defense Science and Technology Laboratory, which had the satellite on board, said: “We are saddened by the loss of Launcher One and share the disappointment of everyone who has worked so hard to get this far
“We will work with our partners to enable our research program to continue. It’s a poignant reminder that working in space is tough.”