We’ll still have to wait to see LauncherOne or another rocket reach British orbit.
Virgin Galactic and its twin Virgin Orbit have been low-key since the end of 2021, following the revelation of “serious incidents” that occurred during the flight that took Richard Branson to the gates of space. The group had a golden opportunity to redeem themselves yesterday with the first space mission that was supposed to reach British soil orbit… but they failed to seize it; the LauncherOne rocket was lost after a ” anomaly “.
This mission called Start Me Up, after the famous song by the Rolling Stones, had started well. As usual with Virgin, the launcher was first mounted on an intermediate vehicle. Here, it was a modified Boeing 747-400 named Cosmic Girl. It took off safely from the recent Spaceport Cornwall before releasing LauncherOne a few kilometers above sea level in Ireland.
It is the main engine of the latter that then took over. Once again, everything went according to plan until the first floor split. The second set of rocket engines therefore took over to continue the ascent for about 5 minutes. Unfortunately, shortly after the end of this phase, the ground crews announced very bad news.
“ Looks like LauncherOne has encountered an anomaly that will prevent us from reaching orbit on this mission. said Chris Relf, Virgin Orbit’s director of engineering and verification, looking visibly concerned.
Nine satellites lost and one setback for UKSA
It is indeed a great disappointment for the red team. As mentioned above, it is above all the failure of the first launch into orbit of the British archipelago. However, the British space agency (UKSA) depended heavily on him.
It’s been almost 10 years since the UK decided to accelerate the development of its aerospace industry. And so far, this initiative has paid off. Today, our neighbors across the Channel have nearly 500 satellites in low Earth orbit. It is almost five times more than France. In fact, there is simply no country in Europe that produces more satellites. In the world, only the United States and its fleet of 5,500 machines do better.
But the other side of the coin is that an important piece of Charles III’s subjects is still missing: launch infrastructure. For now, the British space agency still needs to send its machines to the four corners of the world to be launched by other suppliers. And it is precisely this gap that Virgin should have filled. The mission was to demonstrate its ability to reach Cornwall orbit.
Furthermore, the mission failure also led to the loss of nine valuable military and scientific satellites. LauncherOne notably carried two satellites dedicated to defense. There were also machines dedicated to studying the ionosphere, the upper layer of the atmosphere whose interactions with the solar wind give rise to auroras. There was also an experimental navigation satellite co-funded by the ESA and an orbital fabrication experiment run by British startup Space Forge.
A new try this summer?
It is also a failure in terms of image, because Virgin relied heavily on the media potential of this mission. According to Ian Annett, deputy CEO of the British space agency, tickets to watch Cosmic Girl take off sold out faster than those at the legendary Glastonbury music festival. Many space lovers in Europe have made the trip and sadly left empty-handed. For the height of irony, they couldn’t even directly watch the machine fall.
Even though it stayed low-key for a year, Virgin Orbit was on a good streak. Since January 2021, it has successfully completed four consecutive launches that have placed a total of 33 satellites into orbit. So it’s only a matter of time before the company masters every aspect of Spaceport Cornwall launches.
However, you will have to be patient. So far, Virgin Orbit has launched its LauncherOnes about six months apart. Therefore, we probably shouldn’t expect a new dismissal before the summer of 2023.