No-Go for Virgin Orbit’s First U.K. Launch

No-Go for Virgin Orbit’s First U.K. Launch

The first orbital launch from the United Kingdom didn’t go as planned Monday evening. After initially tweeting that the satellites attained orbit, Virgin Orbit had to backtrack and concede “an anomaly prevented us from reaching orbit.” The company later amended that to say they did not reach the “final orbit” suggesting some type of orbit was achieved, but it is not clear that was the case.

Virgin Orbit is an air-launched system where the rocket, LauncherOne, is attached to a Boeing 747 aircraft, Cosmic Girl. The aircraft takes off from a runway and the rocket drops away at about 35,000 feet, firing its rocket engines to take payloads to orbit.

Aboard LauncherOne this time were nine satellites for seven customers ranging from U.S/U.K./European government and commercial organizations to the Sultanate of Oman. The launch service was procured by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office.

The company initially tweeted orbit was attained, then conceded it did not.

In a later press release, however, they said the mission “reached space” but “did not achieve its final orbit.” The wording suggests some type of orbit was attained, although they did not disclose the orbital parameters and did not immediately respond to a request for that information. Imagery taken by an observer in the Canary Islands along the rocket’s trajectory, however, appears to show the rocket reentering around 23:30 UTC.

Cosmic Girl took off from Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay, U.K. at 5:02 pm EST (22:02 UTC) January 9 amid great excitement about the first launch to orbit not just from the United Kingdom, but western Europe. The mission was dubbed “Start Me Up” after a 1981 hit by the Rolling Stones.

Source: Google Maps
Cosmic Girl with Launcher One ready for take-off from Spaceport Cornwall, January 9, 2023. Screengrab.

U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was among those tweeting his best wishes earlier in the day.

Cosmic Girl flew out over the Atlantic Ocean south of Ireland and about an hour after takeoff LauncherOne dropped away from the aircraft as planned.

The first stage apparently fired as planned and separated from the second stage, but “at some point during the firing of the rocket’s second stage engine and with the rocket travelling at a speed of more than 11,000 miles per hour, the system experienced an anomaly, ending the mission prematurely” according to the press release.

Company CEO Dan Hart said: “We will work tirelessly to understand the nature of the failure, make corrective actions, and return to orbit as soon as we have completed a full investigation and mission assurance process.” Matt Archer, Director of Commercial Spaceflight at the UK Space Agency and Melissa Thorpe, Head of Spaceport Cornwall, praised the work that led up to the launch and vowed to continue working to make the U.K. a leader in commercial small satellite launches.

The nine satellites that were lost included two Prometheus cubesats from the U.K. Ministry of Defense, two CIRCE cubesats from the UK MOD and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, and seven others from government and commercial customers.

  • IOD-3 AMBER (aka IOD-3) – Developed by Satellite Applications Catapult (“SA Catapult”) and Horizon Technologies and built by AAC Clyde Space, all based in the U.K. IOD-3 Amber is expected to be the first of more than 20 Amber satellites to provide space-based Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) data to users.
  • Prometheus-2 – Two cubesats owned by the U.K. Ministry of Defense’s (MOD) Defense Science & Technology Laboratory Dstl. These satellites, co-funded with Airbus Defence and Space who are designing them jointly with In-Space Missions, will support MOD science and technology (S&T) activities both in orbit and on the ground through the development of ground systems focused at Dstl’s site near Portsmouth.
  • CIRCE (Coordinated Ionospheric Reconstruction CubeSat Experiment) – CIRCE is part of a joint mission between the U.K.’s Defense Science and Technology Laboratory and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL).
  • DOVER – Developed by RHEA Group in the UK, it is the company’s first satellite in its 30-year history. The satellite is being co-funded through the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Navigation Program (NAVISP) and built by Open Cosmos of the United Kingdom. DOVER is a SmallSat that was created as a pathfinder for resilient global navigation satellite systems.
  • ForgeStar-0 – Developed by Space Forge of Wales, the satellite is a fully returnable and reusable platform to enable in-space manufacturing. This launch will be the first for the company’s ForgeStar platform and will test future returns from space technology.
  • AMAN – Oman’s first orbital mission, it is a single earth observation satellite meant to demonstrate the future feasibility of a larger constellation and was developed after a memorandum of understanding among the Sultanate of Oman, Polish Small Satellite manufacturer and operator SatRev, Poland-originated AI data analytics specialists TUATARA, and Omani-based merging technology innovator ETCO. The agreement includes additional planned small satellites, including this, the first in Oman’s history.
  • STORK-6  Stork-6 is the next installment of Polish Small Satellite manufacturer and operator SatRev’s STORK constellation. Virgin Orbit previously launched two spacecraft in this constellation on a previous launch and looks forward to continuing to launch SatRev’s STORK spacecraft in the future.

Air-launched systems like Virgin Orbit are limited in terms of the mass of the payloads they can place in orbit, but have the advantage of being able to launch anywhere in world with an airport that has a runway long enough for an aircraft like a Boeing 747.

Pegasus, a U.S. air-launched system developed by Orbital Sciences Corporation (now part of Northrop Grumman) was the first air-launched space system to be technically successful, but finding customers has been a challenge.

Virgin Orbit is part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group that includes Virgin Galactic. Virgin Orbit puts satellites into orbit while Virgin Galactic launches people on suborbital adventures. Virgin Galactic has not launched anyone since Branson himself and five company employees flew in July 2021.

Virgin Orbit had four successful flights from the Mojave Air & Space Port in California in the past two years. This was its first international launch attempt, part of a goal to expand globally.


This article has been updated.

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