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The first attempt by Virgin Orbit to send a nine-satellite payload to space from the UK failed – causing a dramatic drop in share price.

Virgin Orbit’s previous launches in the Mojave desert only attracted a few dozen people at a time. This really wasn’t a surprise. The launch-proper, i.e. from the aircraft, doesn’t take place close to the airport. But clearly, the crowds outside Newquay Cornwall Airport (EGHQ) in south-western England, or Spaceport Cornwall for this occasion, disagreed. You certainly don’t get to see a 747-400 take off with a giant missile hanging under its left wing every day!

Photo: Virgin Orbit

Before this UK launch, Virgin Orbit had made five other commercial launches. There was a previous failure of a test launch in 2020. But this is the first time that the company fails during a commercial mission. The LauncherOne system carried nine very small satellites but has also attracted interest from government agencies.

 

Virgin Orbit – First Ever UK Space Launch

Had it been successful, Virgin Orbit would have made the first UK space launch since the days of the Black Arrow program in 1971. Except, that UK program took place in Australia. So Virgin Orbit’s launch would actually be the first-ever space launch from Europe. Cosmic Girl, Virgin Orbit’s 747 with registration N744VG, took off and headed west, southwest of Ireland.

Virgin Orbit Mission Out Of The UK Fails

Cosmic Girl arriving in Cornwall. Photo: Virgin Orbit

The portion of the launch that had to do with the aircraft went perfectly. Any worries that the UK weather would get in the way of Virgin Orbit, didn’t materialize. After climbing to FL300, Cosmic Girl’s crew briefly entered a racetrack pattern, before making a very un-airliner-like zoom climb. The modified 747 reached a calibrated altitude of nearly 38,000 feet (GPS: 34,450 ft) as it traded speed for altitude.

The Virgin Orbit aircraft then made its way back to the UK, at FL270. LauncherOne’s first stage worked perfectly, accelerating the missile and sending it on its way. But things didn’t go as well with the second stage. The company hasn’t offered many details yet, but it seems that the stage ignited successfully, before experiencing “an anomaly”. It technically made it to space, but not to orbit. The company is evaluating what happened.

Virgin Orbit Mission Out Of The UK Fails

Cosmic Girl in the Mojave. Image: Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson

 

A Broad Set Of Goals?

After the announcement of the failure of the UK launch, shares of Virgin Orbit dropped by around 20%, before recovering slightly, closing down 14%. Insurers will cover the cost of the payload, but this is a very competitive market. However, even if commercial interest waned, some observers believe that government interest could be an important factor in keeping Virgin Orbit going.

A previous launch. The latest one took place at night. Image: Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson

Whether it’s launched from the UK or elsewhere, the Virgin Orbit LauncherOne can only carry smaller payloads than more conventional space launch systems. But one advantage it has, in addition to lower launch costs, is the speed with which a launch could be set up. And this has some interesting military implications.

The war in Ukraine has demonstrated the need to provide satellite imagery, in parts of the world where there may not be adequate coverage – or coverage in the right conditions. Virgin Orbit’s system has attracted interest as a potential quick-response way to put “extra eyes in space”. Britain’s Royal Air Force is part of the project, which it calls “Responsive Launch”. But even in this role, Virgin Orbit is far from the only such option.

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