Why Virgin Orbit’s failed UK launch is a big deal

Why Virgin Orbit’s failed UK launch is a big deal

Why Virgin Orbit’s failed UK launch is a big deal

NOTFew people have heard of Spaceport Cornwall in the UK, but last night more than 2,000 paying ticket holders showed up to witness what was believed to be the first orbital space launch from UK soil. The payload: nine different satellites from the military and private sectors. The launch company: Virgin Orbit, the US-based operation owned by billionaire Richard Branson. The result, alas: a failure, marking a major setback both for Virgin Orbit and for the UK’s announced goal of becoming the leading provider of small satellite launch services in Western Europe by 2030.

Virgin Orbit works unlike most private and public launch services. Rather than using a vertical rocket that takes off from a launch pad to reach space, he places a small rocket carrying a satellite under the wing of a Boeing 747, flies it about 10,000m (35 000 feet) then releases it. The first stage of the rocket then fires, propelling itself above the 100 km (62 mi.) line which is the recognized threshold of space; then the first stage drops and a second stage fires up, carrying the payload to orbit.

Since its founding in 2020, Virgin Orbit has successfully launched four launches following this exact profile from a spaceport in California’s Mojave Desert. Last night in the UK things didn’t go so well. The plane took off as planned and the first stage functioned perfectly, but, according to an official statement from the British space agency, “an anomaly” prevented the second stage from igniting as it should, destroying the entire load. useful satellites.

“While we are very proud of the many things we have successfully accomplished on this mission,” Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said in the group statement, “we recognize that we have no failed to provide our customers with the launch service they deserve.” Those customers include the British military and a handful of private companies, including In-Space Missions, which had two Earth-monitoring satellites aboard the Virgin Orbit rocket.” Losing them is very upsetting for everyone. “Doug Liddle, the company’s chief executive, told the BBC.

Matt Archer, director of commercial spaceflight for the space agency, added in the statement: “While this result is disappointing, launching a spacecraft still carries significant risks.”

For Virgin Orbit, those risks imply its aim to become more than a niche player in the space launch business, eclipsed by giants like SpaceX, which recorded 61 successful launches of its Falcon 9 rocket last year alone. “We will work tirelessly to understand the nature of failure [and] take corrective action,” Hart said. But these actions do not prevent another bruise on the Virgin brand, as well as on the company’s space tourism division, Virgin Galactic, which has promised since 2004 to begin regular suborbital flights for paying space tourists and does not has not yet fulfilled this commitment.

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

Britain has a strong satellite-making capability and is able to launch payloads on suborbital lob shots, but it relies on other nations, including the United States and New Zealand, to launch satellites into orbit. Spaceport Cornwall, which only a few weeks ago was an unused cement slab at a commercial airport, was meant to mark the first step in the country’s independence in space launch. The UK is also considering building a facility in Scotland that can launch traditional vertical rockets.

“It’s absolutely disgusting,” Spaceport Cornwall manager Melissa Thorpe told the BBC. “We put so much in there, but it’s space and the cliché is that it’s hard. We know it’s difficult.

In a TweeterBritain’s science minister, George Freeman, echoed this, quoting President John Kennedy, who said of America’s goal of reaching the moon: “We do these things not because they’re easy , but because they are difficult”.

Spaceport Cornwall is ready to try again, as is Virgin Orbit, which plans to “return to orbit as soon as 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 Factory was poor. On the same day the company failed to deliver nine satellites into orbit, rival SpaceX successfully launched a herd of 40 broadband satellites.

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

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