Virgin Orbit was set to mark a new era of spaceflight for the UK, but we’ll just have to wait a little longer.
The first LauncherOne mission, dubbed “Start Me Up” after the Rolling Stones’ 1981 track, launched without a hitch on Monday night from Cornwall Airport Newquay, England, now also referred to as Spaceport Cornwall.
Unfortunately, hours later, the mission encountered an “anomaly” and was unable to reach orbit.
Virgin’s converted Boeing 747 plane “Cosmic Girl” cleared all pre-launch criteria before taking off at 10 p.m. GMT. The target orbit for the mission was approximately 555 kilometres/SSO.
Virgin confirmed LauncherOne’s clean separation from Cosmic Girl and successful ignition of the first stage rocket engine, NewtonThree, and the mission seemed in really good shape. LauncherOne officially reached space at approximately midnight GMT, two hours after launch.
The upper stage shut down as planned, ready to travel halfway around the globe then reignite the engine to complete the mission and deploy the satellite payload. Unfortunately, while waiting for this stage, Virgin announced on Twitter that “an anomaly that has prevented us from reaching orbit.” Meanwhile, Cosmic Girl returned safely to the spaceport.
Credit: Virgin Orbit
Virgin livestreamed the launch on YouTube, and if you skip to the 35-minute mark below, you can relive it. According to the Guardian, 2,000 people showed up to watch the launch in Cornwall.
The mission, when successful, will mark the first ever launch of satellites from UK soil and the first commercial launch from western Europe. It’s also the first international launch for Virgin Orbit following its successful U.S. launch in 2021.
According to Virgin, “The missions of these satellites span a wide range of activities aimed at improving life on planet Earth, including reducing the environmental impact of production; preventing illegal trafficking, smuggling, and terrorism; and a host of national security functions.”
Despite not reaching orbit, the Virgin Orbit launch from England is a landmark moment for spaceflight in the UK. More spaceports are being constructed in Scotland and Wales, steered by the government’s UK Space Agency, as part of the National Space Strategy.
It’s not a great moment for Virgin, however, as CNBC reports Virgin Orbit shares plummeted as much 30 percent in after-hours trading following the rocket’s failure to reach orbit.