The Virgin Orbit launch was intended to be a demonstration of Britain’s plan to become the space nation of the future, launching unprecedented rockets and satellites into orbit.
The former airliner was supposed to ascend to 35,000 feet, release a rocket attached to its wing, and return home. The rocket will ignite and then lift into orbit, dropping a string of nine satellites that would be the first ever launched from Western Europe.
But somewhere across the ocean, as the mission was about to end, something went wrong. The rocket failed to enter its orbit as predicted.
Instead, it likely fell into the atmosphere and burned up, experts say. Those pieces of equipment that survived the failed mission likely fell into the sea.
It is still not clear why exactly this happened. Virgin Orbit and the government say they are working together to find out what the “anomaly” was that prevented the “Start Me Up” mission from launching a rocket into orbit.
At first, it wasn’t even clear if there was a failure at all. Virgin Orbit announced in a tweet on Monday night that it had successfully made it into orbit – but that tweet was deleted shortly thereafter, along with a promise to release more information as soon as it became available.
The mission launched on Monday evening, slightly earlier than planned. The plane known as ‘Cosmic Girl’ took off from Cornwall Spaceport and could be seen taking off in a live stream.
About an hour later, the rocket detached from that plane. His pilots then began the return journey from the south-west coast of Ireland, preparing to land again.
The rocket initially appeared to burn as expected. But its upper stage burned for nearly five minutes – and a few minutes later Virgin Orbit indicated something had gone wrong.
He revealed very little in the livestream, which has already been hit with criticism for being vague in the commentary, as well as other technical issues such as too loud music. Even in the hours that followed, the company said little about what had happened.
“At some point during the launch of the rocket’s second-stage engine and while the rocket was traveling at over 11,000 miles per hour, the system experienced an anomaly that ended the mission prematurely,” Virgin Orbit later said in a statement.
It’s still not clear what happened. Business Secretary Grant Shapps said Virgin Orbit would be investigating what caused the outage in “the coming days and weeks”.
But he and others tried to cast the failure as an example of how hard it is to work in space. They also indicated that a failed launch would not weaken their faith that the UK could become a future space country.
Virgin Orbit and its customers will not be out of pocket for failure: the launch was insured, confirmed Matt Archer, director of commercial space for the UK Space Agency. Clients including Oman, British start-up Space Forge and others are believed to have paid as much as $12 million to launch
Whether the outage will affect the company overall remains to be seen. The company’s share price fell 14 percent on Tuesday after its launch – meaning it has lost more than 80 percent of its value since its debut last year – amid investors’ fears that its business plan might fail.
But Virgin Orbit is not alone. Last month, the Italian-built Vega-C rocket failed after launching from French Guiana – and the rockets were delayed pending further work to understand why it failed and what can be done.
Moreover, the European Space Agency’s Ariane 6 launch – designed to carry large satellites into orbit – has been delayed.
Even NASA, perhaps the world’s most famous rocket launcher, struggled to send its latest Artemis 1 mission into space. He eventually carried out a mission that saw the spacecraft orbit the moon and then return to Earth, preparing humans to do the same – but not after weather and technical problems caused a series of costly delays.
Virgin Orbit will now be hoping it can get another shot at launch, and maybe even make it this year. However, much will depend on the investigation that is to come.
“Space is tough,” Shapps told Sky News. “It didn’t work. No doubt they’ll get up, dust themselves off, and go again.”
But other British companies may get there first. Spaceport Cornwall is just one of many locations that have been designated as future launch sites – and those sites and businesses that depend on them may now have a chance to be the first.
On Tuesday morning, for example, rival and fellow launch company Orbex Space sympathized with Virgin Orbit, but also noted the excitement surrounding its own launches. “Meanwhile, we look forward to introducing the UK to vertical orbital launches with the debut of our eco-friendly Prime rocket, launched from our own platform at Sutherland Spaceport in the near future,” it said on Twitter.