The Virgin Orbit launch was intended to be a demonstration of the UK’s plan to be a space nation of the future, launching unprecedented rockets and satellites into orbit.
A former passenger plane was supposed to climb up to 35,000 feet, let go of the rocket that was attached to its wing, and come home. The rocket would ignite and then climb up into orbit, dropping off an array of nine satellites that would be the first ever to be launched from western Europe.
But somewhere over the ocean, as the mission was due to draw to a close, something went badly wrong. The rocket failed to make it into its orbit as predicted.
Instead, it probably fell through the atmosphere and burnt up, experts said. Those bits of equipment that survived the failed mission have probably fallen into the sea.
It is still not clear why exactly that has happened. Virgin Orbit and the government say they are working together to find out what the “anomaly” was that caused the ‘Start Me Up’ mission to fail to get the rocket to orbit.
Initially, it was not even clear that failure had happened at all. Virgin Orbit announced in a tweet on Monday night that it had successfully made it to orbit – but that tweet was deleted soon after, along with a promise to release more information as it became available.
The mission began on Monday night, a little earlier than scheduled. The plane known as ‘Cosmic Girl’ lifted off from Spaceport Cornwall and could be seen climbing on its live stream.
About an hour later, the rocket detached from that plane. Its pilots then began making the journey back from Ireland’s southwest coast, preparing to land again.
The rocket initially appeared to be burning as expected. But its upper stage conducted a nearly five-minute burn – and a few minutes later Virgin Orbit indicated that something had gone wrong.
It revealed very little on a live stream that had already been hit by criticism for the vagueness of its commentary, as well as other technical problems such as overly loud music. Even in the hours that followed, the company said little about what had happened.
“At some point during the firing of the rocket’s second stage engine and with the rocket travelling at a speed of more than 11,000 miles per hour, the system experienced an anomaly, ending the mission prematurely,” Virgin Orbit later said in a statement.
It’s still not clear what happened. The business secretary Grant Shapps said Virgin Orbit would be investigating what caused the failure in the “coming days and weeks”.
But he and others attempted to cast the failure as an example of just how hard it is to work in space. And they have also indicated that the failed launch will not dent their faith that the UK could become a future space nation.
Virgin Orbit and its customers won’t be out of pocket for the failure: the launch was insured, confirmed Matt Archer, the UK Space Agency’s commercial space director. Customers including Oman, British start-up Space Forge and others are thought to have paid as much as $12 million for the launch
Whether the failure will affect the company more generally remains to be seen. The company’s share price was down 14 per cent on Tuesday, after the launch – meaning that it has lost more than 80 per cent of its value since it was listed last year – amid fears from investors that its business plan could fail to take off.
But Virgin Orbit is not alone. Last month, an Italian-built Vega-C rocket failed after it lifted off from French Guiana – and the rockets have been delayed until further work can be done to understand why it failed and what can be done.
What’s more, the European Space Agency’s Ariane 6 launched – intended to carry big satellites into orbit – has been delayed.
Even Nasa, perhaps the world’s most famous launcher of rockets, struggled to get its recent Artemis 1 mission into space. It did eventually conduct the mission, which saw a spacecraft circle around the Moon and then come back to Earth, in preparation for humans doing the same thing – but not after weather and technical problems caused a number of expensive delays.
Virgin Orbit will now be hoping that it can have another go at the launch, and might even do so this year. Much will depend however on the investigation that is to come.
“Space is difficult,” Mr Shapps told Sky News. “It didn’t work. No doubt they’ll pick themselves up, dust themselves off and they’ll go again.”
But other UK companies could get there first. Spaceport Cornwall is just one of a number of locations that have been set up as future launch locations – and those places and the companies that are depending on them may now get a chance to be the first after all.
On Tuesday morning, for instance, rival and fellow launch company Orbex Space commiserated Virgin Orbit but also pointed to the excitement over its own launches. “Meanwhile we look forward to introducing the UK to vertical orbital launches with the debut of our environmentally-friendly rocket Prime, launching from our own pad at Sutherland Spaceport in the near future,” it wrote on Twitter.