SEATTLE — Virgin Orbit says its first LauncherOne mission from the UK failed to reach orbit on Jan. 9 when an anomaly caused the rocket’s upper stage to shut down prematurely.
In a January 12 statement, Virgin Orbit provided some new details about the failed “Start Me Up” mission from Spaceport Cornwall in England, which attempted to place nine satellites into orbit. The failure was the first for LauncherOne since an inaugural demonstration mission in 2020.
According to the company, the initial phases of the launch, including deploying the rocket from its Boeing 747 and burning the first stage, went according to plan. The rocket’s second stage then separated and ignited its NewtonFour engine, followed by fairing separation from the payload.
“Later in the mission, at an altitude of about 180 km, the upper stage experienced an anomaly. This anomaly terminated the first upper story burn prematurely,” the company said. The company did not disclose additional details about the anomaly.
Observers had speculated that some sort of problem with the upper stage had caused the failure, although issues with the telemetry displayed during the launch webcast, such as erroneous data, made it difficult to definition of the nature of the problem or its timing. The company did not explain why it initially announced at launch that the upper stage had reached orbit, a claim it retracted nearly half an hour later.
Virgin Orbit has launched a formal investigation led by Chad Foerster, its chief engineer and vice president of technology, and Jim Sponnick, former vice president of Atlas and Delta programs at United Launch Alliance. The company has not estimated how long this investigation will take.
“After identifying the anomaly, our team immediately went into pre-planned investigation mode,” said Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, in the statement. Given the company’s experience with the vehicle and the “extensive telemetry data” from the flight, “I am confident that the root cause and corrective actions will be determined in an efficient and timely manner.”
Virgin Orbit said LauncherOne’s return flight will take place from Mojave Air and Space Port in California, which had hosted the previous five missions before this launch. The rocket for this mission is going through final integration and verification.
The company said it plans to return to Spaceport Cornwall for future launches, “and is in active talks with key government and commercial stakeholders in the UK to begin planning mission opportunities as soon as later this year. “. Hart, during a pre-launch briefing on January 8, offered a similar timeline but with caveats. “I’m not sure that will happen, but it’s not out of the question,” he said then of a second LauncherOne mission from Cornwall before the end of the year.
A quick and successful return to flight is essential for Virgin Orbit, which was losing a significant amount of money even before the failure as it struggled to increase its launch rate. The company ended its fiscal third quarter with $71 million in cash and negative free cash flow of $52.5 million, although the company has since raised $45 million in two separate tranches from Virgin Group and of its investment branch.
Virgin Orbit shares fell 14% on the Nasdaq stock market on January 10, the first day after the failure, but rebounded slightly on January 11. Shares of the company are still trading near their lowest since their IPO just over a year ago in a SPAC merger.