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UK aviation regulators cleared on Virgin Orbit satellite failure

UK government committee clears regulation as contributing factor to UK satellite launch failure, but slams UK government for lack of action on vital component of space programme

Examining the reasons for the much-publicised failure of the Virgin Orbit Start Me Up horizontal launch from Spaceport Cornwall at Newquay on 9 January 2023, the UK’s House of Commons Science, Innovation and Technology Committee has concluded that despite key players being highly critical of the UK regulatory process which preceded the launch attempt, there was no evidence that the regulatory system contributed to the failure of the craft to get into orbit – but has called on the UK government to convene all relevant bodies without delay to take steps to improve the licencing system of the UK satellite industry.

Yet worryingly, the committee warned that time was running out for the government to translate high-level ambitions into practical plans, and that “there was now not a moment to lose” if the UK is to realise the full potential of the currently booming space sector.

The Virgin Orbit Start Me Up mission was the first orbital launch from the UK, the first international launch for and the first commercial launch from western Europe. 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.

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 failed to achieve its final orbit.

Following its take-off, the rocket ignited its engines, going hypersonic and successfully reaching space. After successful separation and ignition of the second stage, at some point the system experienced what has been described as an “anomaly”, ending the mission.

As a consequence, in April 2023, Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit Holdings and its US subsidiaries commenced a voluntary proceeding under Chapter 11 of the US Bankruptcy Code to begin the sale of the satellite business. At the same time, and just as it was criticising the UK government for continued failures in key technical areas of its space policy, the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee revealed it had held a dedicated follow-up session to hear witness statements to gain further insight into the failed Start Me Up launch.

In addition to Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart, the committee heard evidence from in-space manufacturing company Space Forge – which lost a satellite through the failed launch – as well as Spaceport Cornwall, the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority and UK Space Agency.

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    In his evidence, Hart revealed initial investigations had indicated the anomaly centred around a fuel filter becoming dislodged and affecting the fuel pump of the rocket’s second stage, with subsequent failure through heat build-up. He added that the company was in the middle of experiments to make sure it could relate flight telemetry and data to ground test results and resolve the issue.

    In its report, UK space strategy and UK satellite infrastructure: Reviewing the licencing regime for launch, the committee stressed that the UK was on the cusp of establishing Europe’s first small satellite orbital launch capability.

    As well as offering services to one of the world’s fastest growing industries, where launches and service introductions are taking place on almost a weekly basis, a UK satellite launch sector could, said the committee, help strengthen Britain’s position in the design and manufacture of small satellites, and in provision of data and analytical services, by having launch facilities close to the location of space and satellite companies.

    As part of the investigation into the failure in January, Virgin Orbit and some of its satellite customers were highly critical of the UK regulatory process which preceded the launch attempt. This process was led by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), who were accused by Virgin Orbit of operating a process that was “slow, excessively bureaucratic, and risk averse”.

    When called to give its evidence, the CAA defended the conduct of the licencing process, pointing out that the UK’s first launch involved necessary complexity – overflying residential populations and different countries’ airspace, for example. The CAA also observed that it had an overriding duty to maintain public safety and that the launch, while not successful, failed for reasons unrelated to the licencing process and failed safely, rather than dangerously.

    No evidence

    Following consideration of written and oral evidence, the committee concluded there was no evidence that the regulatory system contributed to the failure of the Virgin Orbit launch. If the first experience of licencing was slow, witnesses said that the CAA since had made progress in its application of the regulations contained in the Space Industry Act 2018 and, in particular, in its communication with applicants.

    However, the committee did note that witnesses had indicated that coordination between the large number of regulatory bodies involved in licencing launches continues to place more burdens of complexity and administration than is needed on companies – many of them small – in the launch sector. We recommend that the government should convene all relevant bodies without delay to take steps now to improve the licencing system of UK satellite launches.

    In order to rectify these issues, and improve the potential for the UK space sector, the committee recommended improving the regulatory interfaces between the multiple regulatory bodies – including but not limited to, the CAA, the Health & Safety Executive and the Environment Agency – so that more information relating to applicants can be shared; conducting regulatory processes in parallel rather than sequentially wherever possible; and establishing framework agreements with neighbouring states over the use of airspace.

    Most importantly, the committee said it was opportune to examine whether the regulations contained in the Space Industry Act 2018 – which was passed by Parliament in anticipation of launch – need amendment in the light of the failure in January. It added that given the fast-moving and internationally competitive character of the space and satellite industry, these matters must be carried out urgently, and conclude by the end of this year, to avoid the UK losing its head start in launch.

    The committee was also highly critical of the UK government regarding the lack of action in the UK’s Position, navigation and timing (PNT) strategy. Indeed, it said that it noted with “dismay and alarm” that the strategy, which it identified as vital in a report on 4 November 2022 – has not been published.

    This is despite the committee being told on 17 May by the UK’s minister with responsibility for space that the report would be ready in weeks. The committee said: “The strategy is shrouded in mystery since we were told as long ago as June 2021 that it was ready in draft form. It is symptomatic of a disjointed approach to concrete policy and leadership for the UK’s space and satellite sector, which now risks hampering its potential. We call on the government to publish the strategy without further delay.”

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