Why the failure of Virgin Orbit’s UK launch is a big deal

Why the failure of Virgin Orbit’s UK launch is a big deal

Not many people have heard of Spaceport Cornwall in the UK, but last night more than 2,000 paying ticket holders turned up there to see what would be the first orbital space launch from UK soil. The payload: nine different military and private satellites. The launch company: Virgin Orbit, the US-based company owned by billionaire Richard Branson. The result – alas: a failure that represents a major setback for both Virgin Orbit and the UK’s announced goal of becoming the leading provider of small satellite launch services in Western Europe by 2030.

Virgin Orbit operates differently than most private and public launch services. Instead of using a vertical rocket that lifts off a launch pad to reach space, she sticks a small satellite-carrying rocket under the wing of a Boeing 747, flies it to about 35,000 feet (10,000 m), and then releases it. The rocket’s first stage then fires and propels itself over the 100 km (62 miles) line, which is the recognized threshold of space; then the first stage falls and a second stage glows, carrying the payload into orbit.

Since its inception in 2020, Virgin Orbit has successfully completed four launches that precisely followed this profile from a spaceport in California’s Mojave Desert. Things didn’t go so well in the UK last night. The plane took off as planned and the first stage worked perfectly, but according to an official statement from the British Space Agency, “an anomaly” prevented the second stage from firing as intended, destroying the entire satellite payload.

“While we are very proud of the many things we have successfully accomplished as part of this mission,” said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart, in the group statement, “we recognize that we have failed to deliver to our customers To provide launch service they deserve.” Those customers include the UK military and a handful of private companies, including In-Space Missions, which had two Earth observation satellites on board the Virgin Orbit rocket. “Losing these is very upsetting for everyone,” Doug Liddle, the company’s chief executive, told the BBC.

Matt Archer, the space agency’s director of commercial space, added in the statement, “While this result is disappointing, launching a spacecraft always carries significant risks.”

For Virgin Orbit, those risks include a goal to become more than a niche player in the space launch business, eclipsed by giants like SpaceX, which had 61 successful launches of its Falcon 9 workhorse rocket last year alone. “We will work tirelessly to understand the nature of the failure [and] Take corrective action,” Hart said. But those measures aren’t preventing another bruise on the Virgin brand, along with the company’s space division, Virgin Galactic, which has promised since 2004 to begin regular suborbital flights for paying space tourists and has yet to deliver on that promise.

The bigger blow, however, hit Britain. The European Space Agency (ESA) regularly launches spacecraft into orbit and beyond on board its Ariane 5 rocket from a spaceport in French Guiana, South America. In fact, it was an Ariane 5 that successfully launched NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. But no country has yet launched orbital spacecraft from the European continent.

The UK has a solid satellite manufacturing capacity and is capable of launching payloads at suborbital lob shots, but relies on other countries including the US and New Zealand to get the satellites into orbit. Spaceport Cornwall, which just a few weeks ago was an unused cement slab at a commercial airport, was intended to mark the country’s first step towards independence from space launches. The UK also plans to build a facility in Scotland capable of launching conventional vertical missiles.

“It absolutely sucks,” Melissa Thorpe, director of Spaceport Cornwall, told the BBC. “We put so much into it but it’s a lot of space and the cliché is that it’s heavy. We know it’s hard.”

in one tweetBritish Science Minister George Freeman echoed this, quoting President John Kennedy, who famously said of the US goal to reach the moon: “We are not doing these things because they are easy, we are doing these things because they are difficult.”

Spaceport Cornwall is poised to try again, as is Virgin Orbit – which plans to “return to orbit once we complete a full investigation into the cause of the failure,” Hart said.

When that might be isn’t certain, but the timing of the Virgin face plant was bad. On the same day that the company failed to put nine satellites into orbit, competitor SpaceX successfully launched a flock of 40 broadband satellites.

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write to Jeffrey Kluger at jeffrey.kluger@time.com.

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