NEWQUAY, United Kingdom – The first ever orbital mission to lift off from Britain did not go as planned.
That flight, the “Start Me Up” mission by Virgin Orbit, started well enough. The company’s transport aircraft, known as Cosmic Girl, took off from Spaceport Cornwall here as scheduled on Monday (January 9) at 17:02 EST (2202 GMT).
Cosmic Girl dropped Virgin Orbit’s 70-foot-long (21 meters) LauncherOne rocket at 18:09 EST (2309 GMT), while the aircraft was off the southwest coast of Ireland. The rocket’s first stage did its job, and LauncherOne’s two stages separated as planned about 3.5 minutes after the drop.
The rocket’s upper stage finished a nearly five-minute burn shortly thereafter, then entered a long coast. It was during this phase that we learned something had gone wrong.
“It appears that LauncherOne has suffered an anomaly, which will prevent us from orbiting this mission,” Virgin Orbit’s Chris Relf, director of systems development and verification, said during a webcast of the mission. Details were not immediately available.
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The failure resulted in the loss of nine satellites. These payloads are a production experiment in orbit by the British company Space Forge; several British defense cube kits, including two to study the ionosphere, the upper layer of Earth’s atmosphere where space weather occurs; and an experimental global navigation satellite co-financed by the European Space Agency.
“Start Me Up”, which took its name from the famous 1981 song by the Rolling Stones, was an important mission for Virgin Orbit. All five of the company’s previous orbital flights originated from the Mojave Air and Space Port in southeastern California, so “Start Me Up” opened a new launch chapter for the company.
At a pre-launch press conference on Sunday (January 8), Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said the company could be back at Spaceport Cornwall later this year and is also looking at other locations around the world.
“We’re excited about the future and coming back, maybe as soon as later this year, to launch again and hopefully get a rhythm going,” Hart said. “We want to be part of the fabric of the aerospace community here in the UK as well as globally. That’s our aim as a company.”
“Start Me Up” was also a very big deal for the UK. Tickets to see Cosmic Girl take off from Spaceport Cornwall, otherwise known as Newquay Airport, sold out faster than tickets to Britain’s iconic Glastonbury music festival, according to Ian Annett, deputy chief executive of the UK Space Agency.
Space geeks from the south-west Cornwall region of England and beyond braved the cold to witness the historic moment, despite occasional rain showers and gusts of wind that made the 48 degrees Fahrenheit (9 degrees Celsius) temperatures at the site feel even colder.
They were unable to witness the rocket fall, but they did see Cosmic Girl return safely to the airport.
The UK announced plans to develop infrastructure for small satellite launches in 2014 in the hope of increasing its share of the global space market. The country is home to some leading small satellite manufacturers, including Airbus, Surrey Satellite Technology and Clyde Space. Before “Start Me Up”, these satellites had to be sent elsewhere for launch.
“The space industry is worth around £6.5bn [$7.7 billion] annually for the UK economy,” Annett said during Sunday’s pre-launch press conference.
“As a country, we build more satellites than anywhere else outside of the United States,” he said. “So it helps to develop an end-to-end capability so we can do everything.”
According to Melisa Thorpe, managing director of Spaceport Cornwall, it cost £20 million ($24 million) to convert the small airport in Newquay into a ready-to-use space. In total, seven sites received funding from the UK Space Agency in 2017 to help with space-guided upgrades.
Two other sites are currently in the final stages of preparations for space launch: SpaceHub Sutherland in the north of Scotland and SaxaVord spaceport in the Shetland Islands off the Scottish coast. Both of these spaceports will serve vertical micro-rocket launches and hope to see their first launches later this year.
Virgin Orbit had run a streak of four consecutive launch successes to date. These four missions had placed 33 satellites into orbit for a variety of customers.