Virgin Orbit rocket failure: UK satellite launch suffers in-flight 'anomaly'


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A historic first mission to launch satellites from British soil ultimately fell short of reaching its target orbit after suffering an "anomaly."

Following a successful takeoff from the runway at Spaceport Cornwall on Monday night, and traveling to a designated drop zone, Virgin Orbit said the customized Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 aircraft "Cosmic Girl" that serves as the LauncherOne system’s carrier aircraft released the rocket. 

The rocket reached space, continuing through stage separation and ignition of the second stage.

However, at some point during the firing of its second stage engine, with the rocket reaching a speed of more than 11,000 miles per hour, the system experienced the anomaly and the mission was ended prematurely. 

Shares of Virgin Orbit tumbled by as much as 20% on the news.


Virgin Atlantic Cosmic Girl, a repurposed Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 aircraft carrying a rocket, is parked at Spaceport Cornwall, at Cornwall Airport in Newquay, England, Monday, Jan. 9, 2023.  ((Ben Birchall/PA via AP) / AP Newsroom)

The U.S.-headquartered company said that even though the mission did not achieve its final orbit, it marks an "important step forward," including the collaboration of multiple agencies and offices from the U.K. and America. 

This is the first of five LauncherOne missions to fall short of delivering its payloads to their precise target orbit.

The rocket was supposed to take nine small satellites for mixed civil and defense use into orbit.

This undated photo provided by Virgin Orbit on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, shows the LauncherOne rocket in a hanger at Spaceport Cornwall, at Cornwall Airport in Newquay, England.  ((Virgin Orbit via AP))


"While we are very proud of the many things that we successfully achieved as part of this mission, we are mindful that we failed to provide our customers with the launch service they deserve. The first-time nature of this mission added layers of complexity that our team professionally managed through; however, in the end a technical failure appears to have prevented us from delivering the final orbit," Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said in a statement. "We will work tirelessly to understand the nature of the failure, make corrective actions and return to orbit as soon as we have completed a full investigation and mission assurance process."

A repurposed Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 aircraft, named Cosmic Girl, carrying Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket, taxis down the runway ahead of take off at Spaceport Cornwall at at Cornwall Airport, Newquay, England, Monday Jan. 9, 2023.  ((Ben Birchall/PA via AP) / AP Newsroom)

The launch was originally planned for late last year, but it was postponed because of technical and regulatory issues.


Virgin Orbit was founded by British billionaire Richard Branson. 

Britain invested about $24 million in the spaceport and the launch, science minister George Freeman said on Monday, while the mission itself was largely funded by Virgin Orbit.

"While this result is disappointing, launching a spacecraft always carries significant risks," Matt Archer, the director of commercial spaceflight at the UK Space Agency, said. "Despite this, the project has succeeded in creating a horizontal launch capability at Spaceport Cornwall, and we remain committed to becoming the leading provider of commercial small satellite launch in Europe by 2030, with vertical launches planned from Scotland."

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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