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Virgin Orbit: First-ever launch from UK fails due to premature shutdown of second stage engine.

Published: 2023-01-13

Virgin Orbit shared details of the failure that befell the first of the company's orbital missions in the UK. Analysis of the telemetry of a rocket that fell into the sea on January 9 indicates a premature termination of the second stage engine, but the company's team is determined to continue implementing projects in the country.

Virgin Orbit's Start Me Up mission was to be a historic event, marking the UK's return to space launches for the first time in over 50 years. In addition, this was supposed to be the first space launch from the territory of Great Britain and Europe in general (excluding Russia).

Initially, the mission, which included the launch of the LauncherOne rocket from a modified Boeing 747-400 Cosmic Girl, which took off from the Cornwall spaceport in the west of England and launched over the territory of the Atlantic Ocean, began as usual. The first stage of the rocket separated as planned, but the second stage did not go quite smoothly.

Even earlier it was known that the engine of the second stage did not work for the prescribed 5 minutes. The causes of the incident were not immediately clarified, as the transmission of telemetry switched from one ground station to another. At an altitude of about 180 km, the engine turned off, after which the remains of the rocket fell and burned up in the Earth's atmosphere in a safe corridor over the south Atlantic Ocean, without reaching the desired orbit.

Large amounts of telemetry have pinpointed the location of the incident, according to Virgin Orbit, but the exact cause is still being investigated by a committee led by aerospace veteran Jim Sponnick and principal investigator Chad Foerster, Virgin Orbit's chief engineer and vice president of technology development.

According to the head of Virgin Orbit Dan Hart, everyone is upset that it was not possible to achieve a complete success of the mission - nine satellites were lost. “When an anomaly was identified, our team immediately switched to a pre-planned investigation mode. Based on the experience of four previous successful missions that have proven the effectiveness of the technology, our team's deep understanding of the LauncherOne system due to the large arrays of previously collected flight data and the large volumes of telemetry data collected characterizing the flight and anomaly, I am confident that the root cause and corrective actions will be effective and timely established,” he said.

According to the director of Virgin, the processing and testing of the next spacecraft continues according to plans, all the necessary changes will be made before the next launch, which should take place from the Mojave Desert in California.

According to official figures, Virgin Orbit also intends to return to Cornwall for additional launches and is now in active discussions with key government and commercial stakeholders in the UK to begin planning for a possible mission that could be completed as early as this year.