SEATTLE — Virgin Orbit’s first launch from Britain failed to reach orbit on Jan. 9, marking a high-profile setback for a company that has struggled financially.
Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747 aircraft took off from Spaceport Cornwall in southwest England at approximately 5:02 p.m. Eastern on the company’s “Start Me Up” mission, the sixth LauncherOne mission for the company but the first to fly from a location other than the Mojave Air and Space Port.
The aircraft flew to the designated drop site over the Atlantic Ocean off the south coast of Ireland and released the LauncherOne rocket at approximately 18:11 Eastern. While telemetry during the live webcast of the launch was unreliable, reporting what appeared to be false speed and altitude numbers at times, the company reported seven minutes later that the rocket’s upper stage and payload had reached orbit.
“LauncherOne has once again successfully reached Earth’s orbit!” the company announced in a tweet that it was later deleted. “Our mission is not over yet, but congratulations to the people of Great Britain! This is already the first ever orbital mission from British soil – a huge achievement by @spacegovuk and their partners in government!”
The launch appeared to be in a coasting phase before a second burn of the upper stage NewtonFour engine, followed by payload deployment. But almost half an hour after the announcement of reaching orbit, the company suddenly revealed that the launch had failed instead.
“We appear to have an anomaly that has prevented us from reaching orbit. We are evaluating the information,” the company announced. The company did not provide any other information about the anomaly, including in what condition it occurred and why the company erroneously reported reaching orbit. It confirmed that the Boeing 747 had landed safely back at Spaceport Cornwall.
The Start Me Up mission carried nine small satellites that the rocket would deploy into a sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of about 555 kilometers. The launch was procured by the US National Reconnaissance Office, with the primary payload a pair of cubesats called Prometheus-2 built by the Defense Science & Technology Laboratory (DSTL) of the British Ministry of Defence.
Other payloads on the launch were a pair of cubesats called CIRCE developed by DSTL and the US Naval Research Laboratory; a navigation technology demonstration cube satellite called DOVER built by Open Cosmos; ForgeStar-0, the first satellite for Space Forge, a space manufacturing startup based in Wales; IOD-3 AMBER, the first in a constellation of maritime domain awareness satellites for British company Horizon Technologies; STORK-6 image cube set for the Polish company SatRevolution; and AMAN, the first cube for the Government of Oman.
The mission had a high profile because it was the first orbital launch attempt to take place from Britain, part of a strategy by the British government to develop an “end-to-end” space industry. The launch drew a large crowd to the spaceport, although there was little to see beyond a plane taking off at night.
“Incredible work has gone into the UK’s first launch of an orbital satellite tonight. Good luck to the whole team,” tweeted UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hours before the launch.
The launch follows four consecutive successful LauncherOne launches, all from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, between January 2021 and July 2022. The company’s first LauncherOne launch, in May 2020, failed to reach orbit when the rocket’s first stage engine shut down shortly after ignition.
The failure comes at a precarious time for Virgin Orbit, which has struggled to increase its launch rate and generate revenue. The company, in a Nov. 7 earnings call, reported that it ended the third quarter with $71 million in cash, after reporting negative free cash flow of $52.5 million. The company raised $25 million from Virgin Group in early November and a further $20 million from Virgin Investments Limited, an investment arm of Virgin Group, on 20 December.
In this Nov. 7 earnings call, the company said it would at least double its launch rate in 2023, at a time when the company expected to perform three launches in 2022. The company ended 2022 with just two launches after pushing back the Start Me Up mission to January.