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‘Anomaly’ sees first UK space mission fail to reach orbit

Despite optimism surrounding historic first attempt to launch satellites from UK, mission reaches space but falls short of reaching target orbit

Despite successfully taking off from the runway at Spaceport Cornwall under the wing of a converted Boeing 747-400 aircraft, travelling to the designated drop zone for its scheduled release, the Virgin Orbit LauncherOne vehicle designed to fulfil the Start Me Up satellite mission has not achieved its final orbit.

Encompassing a number of firsts, Start Me Up entailed carrying satellites from seven customers to space, including commercial and government payloads from several nations and a collaborative US-UK mission. The satellites’ objectives were intended to span a wide range of activities including reducing the environmental impact of production; preventing illegal trafficking, smuggling and terrorism; and national security functions.

Partners for the project with Virgin Orbit are the United Kingdom Space Agency (UKSA), Cornwall Council and the Royal Air Force. The mission was the first orbital launch from the UK, the first international launch for Virgin Orbit and the first commercial launch from western Europe.

Start Me Up was the fifth consecutive Virgin Orbit launch to carry payloads for both private companies and government agencies, and all of the prior 33 satellites were carried by LauncherOne to their desired orbit, while, said the company, demonstrating the ability to fly through and above inclement weather, integrate rapid-call up payloads and reach a broader range of orbits than would be possible from a traditional ground-launch system.

Given the number of firsts being executed, before launch Virgin Orbit and partners stressed that they would maintain a conservative posture with regard to system health, weather and all other elements of scheduling.

On 8 January, a LauncherOne system completed an end-to-end launch rehearsal, taking the integrated system through to the loading of propellants and proceeding through terminal count, resulting in the verification of the health of the system and readiness of the team. Following its 22:16 UTC take off on 9 January, the rocket ignited its engines, going hypersonic and successfully reaching space.

The flight then continued through successful stage separation and ignition of the second stage. However, 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 what has been described as an “anomaly”, ending the mission prematurely.

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Though the mission did not achieve its final orbit, Virgin Orbit insisted that by reaching space and achieving numerous significant first-time achievements, it represented an important step forward. It added that the effort behind the flight brought together new partnerships, integrated collaboration and demonstrated that space launch is achievable from UK soil.

“While we are very proud of the many things that we successfully achieved as part of this mission, we are mindful that we failed to provide our customers with the launch service they deserve,” said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart.

“The first-time nature of this mission added layers of complexity that our team professionally managed through; however, in the end a technical failure appears to have prevented us from delivering the final orbit. 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.”

UK Space Agency director of commercial spaceflight Matt Archer said: “Last night, Virgin Orbit attempted the first orbital launch from Spaceport Cornwall. We have shown the UK is capable of launching into orbit, but the launch was not successful in reaching the required orbit.

“We will work closely with Virgin Orbit as they investigate what caused the anomaly in the coming days and weeks. While this result is disappointing, launching a spacecraft always carries significant risks. Despite this, the project has succeeded in creating a horizontal launch capability at Spaceport Cornwall, and we remain committed to becoming the leading provider of commercial small satellite launch in Europe by 2030, with vertical launches planned from Scotland.” 

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