Virgin Orbit launch: Pioneering UK rocket launch fails to get to space

 (PA)
(PA)

A pioneering UK space launch has failed, with the rocket failing to get to orbit.

Virgin Orbit had planned for the mission to be the first ever rocket to launch from UK soil, as well as carrying the first ever satellites to be launched from Western Europe into space.

But the private launch company said that the rocket had suffered an “anomaly” and had failed to make it to orbit.

It gave no detailed information on what had gone wrong, leaving viewers to conclude that the rocket had likely failed to put its payload of satellites successfully into orbit and that they were instead probably destroyed.

“We appear to have an anomaly that has prevented us from reaching orbit,” the company said. “We are evaluating the information.”

A similar announcement was made on the company’s official live stream. There, mission controllers were shown announcing the “anomaly”, but gave no further information, and then the feed cut away.

The company had previously announced that the rocket had reached orbit and that it was awaiting final confirmation that its satellite payload had been successfully deployed. Shortly after it announced the mission had failed, it said it would delete that tweet and aim to “share more info when we can”.

Virgin Orbit had already faced intense criticism of its live stream, from viewers who complained about repetitive music, errors in its commentary, and very few videos from the rocket itself.

But until the very end of the mission, the launch appeared to be a success – even down to Virgin Orbit’s announcement that the rocket had successfully made it into space.

Virgin Orbit had intended to take off in a plane, named “Cosmic Girl”, with a rocket strapped to its left wing. The plane then climbed up to an altitude of 35,000 feet, before letting go of the rocket over the ocean near Ireland.

The mission appeared to go to plan until then. But some time after the rocket had been “dropped” from the plane and had begun to climb, Virgin Orbit announced that the mission had failed.

The plane and its crew of two pilots turned around and landed safely back at Spaceport Cornwall.

Politicians and Virgin Orbit itself had looked to hail the mission as not only pioneering in itself but a groundbreaking part of the UK’s plan to become a space nation, with a host of spaceports across the country. Business minister Grant Shapps had appeared during Virgin Orbit’s live stream to promote the launch as part of the government’s plans for the future.

Virgin Orbit could also suffer heavily from the failure, which is the latest in a series of problems. After being spun off from Richard Branson’s private space company Virgin Galactic in 2017, it went public last year – but its shares have dropped 80 per cent since, amid fears over its financial position and future.