Virgin Orbit explains why its rocket failed and burnt up in spectacular fireball


Virgin Orbit’s pioneering rocket stopped working properly mid-flight, causing it to tumble back down to Earth in a spectacular fireball, the company has revealed.

The private space launch company had aimed to conduct a groundbreaking launch from Spaceport Cornwall on Monday evening, attaching a rocket to a plane and then using it to launch a set of satellites into orbit. It would have been the first rocket launch from UK soil, and the first satellites ever launched from Western Europe.

But towards the end of the mission, Virgin Orbit reported that its rocket had experienced an “anomaly” and that the mission had failed. It cut short its live stream and promised to reveal more information about what had gone wrong as it became clear.

Now it has revealed some details about what happened to bring the mission to its failed end.

The first stage of the rocket performed as expected, carrying it up into space, it said, and the two parts came apart as expected. The second and final stage of the rocket then ignited, once again with everything going to plan.

But at some point during that process, the upper stage “experienced an anomaly”, it said. That meant that the upper stage stopped burning fuel.

“This anomalous event ended the mission, with the rocket components and payload descending to Earth within the approved safety corridor without having achieved orbit,” it said in an announcement. The rocket and its satellites tumbled back to Earth, seemingly burning up as they did so, according to video of the events.

The company did not say why that failure had happened, or the actual nature of the anomaly. But it indicated that it had collected detailed data from the rocket, which has allowed it to begin analysis of the problem already.

“Virgin Orbit has initiated a formal investigation into the source of the second stage failure,” it said. “A fault analysis and investigation of the anomalous event will be conducted with government insight, and implementation of all required, corrective actions identified during the investigation will be completed prior to initiation of Virgin Orbit’s next flight endeavour.”

That flight will launch from California. But the company said that it anticipates that it will return to Spaceport Cornwall, and may do so “as soon as later this year”.