Virgin Orbit Names Investigation Team, Next Try from U.K. Possible This Year

Virgin Orbit Names Investigation Team, Next Try from U.K. Possible This Year

Virgin Orbit announced formation of an investigation team today to discover why the second stage of its LauncherOne rocket failed Monday night, dooming nine satellites. After corrective actions are made, the next launch will be from its usual launch site in California, but the company plans to return to Spaceport Cornwall perhaps as soon as the end of this year. Also today, its sister company, Virgin Galactic, gave an update on when it expects commercial flights to begin.

After somewhat confusing descriptions in the hours immediately after the failure on Monday night, the company clarified that the problem was with LauncherOne’s second stage, or upper stage, and orbit was not achieved.

The LauncherOne rocket separates from its carrier aircraft, a Boeing 747 named Cosmic Girl, at about 35,000 feet (10.6 kilometers). The first stage fires and separates from the second stage, which then fires its own engine to take payloads to their intended orbit. For this mission, Start Me Up, the target orbit was 550 km (342 miles).

Credit: Virgin Orbit

The first stage firing, separation of the two stages, ignition of the second stage, and fairing separation went as planned, the company said today, but at an altitude of 180 kilometers (110 miles), “the upper stage experienced an anomaly” that “prematurely ended the first burn of the upper stage.”

The satellites were headed for a sun-synchronous orbit that circles the Earth’s poles so its path went south over the Atlantic Ocean towards the Canary Islands. An observer in Lanzarotte looking for meteors apparently captured LauncherOne plummeting back to Earth.

Virgin Orbit said they collected “an enormous quantity of data during the mission” that will be studied by an investigation team led by Jim Sponnick, an aerospace veteran who was involved in development and operations of the Atlas and Delta rockets, and Chad Forrester, Virgin Orbit’s Chief Engineer and Vice President of Technology Development.

The company had four successful launches in the past two years from its usual home at Mojave Air & Space Port in California and the next flight also will originate there. But it “anticipates returning to Spaceport Cornwall for additional launches, and is in active discussions with key government and commercial stakeholders in the UK to start planning mission opportunities for as soon as later this year.”

Virgin Orbit and its sister company Virgin Galactic are part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. Virgin Orbit takes satellites to orbit while Virgin Galatic takes people on suborbital adventures.

Virgin Galactic is similar in that the spacecraft, SpaceShipTwo, is flown to about 35,000 feet attached to an aircraft, Virgin Mother Ship (VMS) Eve, and drops away before firing its rocket engine. In that case, however, SpaceShip Two just briefly crosses over the imaginery line separating air and space and then returns to land on a runway. The only SpaceShipTwo currently in operation is named Unity.

Branson and five company employees took a ride in July 2021. The next flight was scheduled for October 2021, but the company decided to delay future flights until after completing an “enhancement program” for VMS Eve and VSS Unity. None have flown since.

Virgin Galactic made its own announcement today. Swami Iyer, President of Aerospace Systems since February 2021, is departing his position effective today. He’ll remain an advisor to CEO Michael Colglazier until March 3. Colglazier said the move was to streamline management now that the enhancement program for VMS Eve is close to completion. It will enter ground tests next week, followed by flight tests to verify the enhancements.

In May 2022, they said a test flight of VSS Unity was expected in the fourth quarter of 2022 and commercial service would begin in the first quarter of 2023. In August 2022, commercial service slipped to the second quarter of 2023. Although they have not yet done ground or flights tests for VMS Eve, they reiterated today that commercial service is still expected in 2Q2023, just a few months away.

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