Fresh details emerge about failed Cornwall rocket launch
New details have surfaced as to why the first-ever satellite mission launched from British soil failed.
The world watched last week as the company Virgin Orbit carried a rocket from Newquay, Cornwall, to be launched high over the Atlantic.
Although the rocket ignited, the mission was aborted after it suffered an “anomaly” and failed to release the satellites it was carrying.
Preliminary analysis of the data from the Start me Mission has begun to shed new light on what went wrong.
The flight was operated using Virgin Orbit’s airborne LauncherOne system from the newly commissioned Spaceport Cornwall.
After successfully completing pre-launch operations and taking off from the runway at Spaceport Cornwall as planned, the Virgin Orbit carrier aircraft flew to a selected drop zone chosen for this mission and successfully launched the rocket.
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The rocket then fired its first stage engine, rapidly going hypersonic and successfully completing first stage combustion.
Initial data reviews indicate that the rocket’s first stage performed as expected, the rocket reached space altitudes, and that stage separation, upper stage ignition, and fairing separation occurred similarly according to the planned mission schedule.
Later during the mission, however, the upper stage experienced an anomaly at an altitude of about 180 km, which prematurely ended the upper stage’s first burnup.
This event ended the mission, with the rocket components and payload falling back to Earth within the approved safety corridor without ever reaching orbit.
The Virgin Orbit carrier plane and its crew returned safely to Spaceport Cornwall.
The company’s formal investigation into the cause of the second stage failure is being led by Distinguished Aerospace Veteran Jim Sponnick and Lead Investigator Chad Foerster.
A comprehensive fault analysis and investigation is performed prior to the next flight, as well as the completion of any required corrective actions identified during the investigation.
Virgin Orbit continues to process its next proposed rocket for final integration and validation ahead of the upcoming mission, which is scheduled to take place from Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
Virgin Orbit also anticipates returning to Spaceport Cornwall for additional launches and is in active discussions with key UK government and commercial officials to begin planning for mission opportunities later this year.
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Dan Hart, CEO of Virgin Orbit said: “We are all disappointed that we have not been able to achieve full mission success and provide the launch service our customers deserve.
“After identifying the anomaly, our team immediately switched to a pre-planned investigation mode. Given our four previous successful missions that have proven our technology, our team’s deep understanding of the LauncherOne system from vast amounts of previously collected flight data, and the extensive telemetry data collected to characterize the flight and the anomaly, I am confident that this is the case, cause and corrective actions are identified efficiently and in a timely manner.
“We continue to process and test our next vehicle according to our plan and will make any necessary changes before our next launch.
“I would also like to express my heartfelt appreciation to our team who have worked tirelessly under high pressure and difficult conditions, and most importantly to our customers, supporters and partners in the UK, US and around the world. Thank you for the many expressions of trust and support we have received over the past two days.”
Founded in 2017 by Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Orbit began commercial service in 2021.