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‘Anomaly’ scuppers first rocket launch attempt from UK soil

Image credit: reuters

An attempt to launch a rocket into space from UK soil last night has ended in failure after it could not reach its final orbit.

The launch took place from Spaceport Cornwall aboard a customised 747 that served as the LauncherOne system’s carrier aircraft.

The plane, dubbed Cosmic Girl, took off on Monday night from Cornwall Airport with hundreds of members of the public watching and over 75,000 viewing a live stream of the event. To prepare Cosmic Girl for the launch, the interior of the main deck was gutted of all seats and overhead bins to reduce the weight.

The rocket was successfully released from the aircraft and its engines ignited, taking it into space at a speed of more than 11,000 miles per hour (around 18,000km/h).

But at some point after stage separation and ignition of the second stage, the system experienced “an anomaly”, ending the mission prematurely.

It is currently unknown if the rocket is still in space or fell back to Earth but operators said it would not land on populated ground.

LauncherOne is a two-stage orbital launch vehicle developed and flown by Virgin Orbit that began operational flights in 2021.

Out of five LauncherOne missions carrying payloads for private companies and governmental agencies, this is the first to fall short of delivering its payloads to their precise target orbit.

The lost payloads include an in-orbit manufacturing experiment by the UK company Space Forge, Oman’s first Earth observation satellite, several UK-built defence cubesats, including two for studying the ionosphere, and an experimental global navigation satellite co-funded by the European Space Agency.

Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit CEO, said: “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. 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.”

Virgin Orbit became the first company to be awarded a licence by the Civil Aviation Authority to initiate a space launch from UK soil in December.

Matt Archer, a director at the UK Space Agency, said: “We have shown the UK is capable of launching into orbit, but the launch was not successful in reaching the required orbit. We will work closely with Virgin Orbit as they investigate what caused the anomaly in the coming days and weeks.”

The failure deals a further blow to European space ambitions after an Italian-built Vega-C rocket mission failed after lift-off from French Guiana in late December.

Britain is currently the leading non-US manufacturer of satellites, with 47,000 people employed in its space industry, and has called for the development of multiple potential microlaunch sites including two vertical launchpads in Scotland.

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