Boeing 747 Rocket Launcher

The bigger picture: Boeing 747 rocket launcher

Image credit: Cover Images

Nestled under the wing of Cosmic Girl, LauncherOne has a payload of satellites including a prototype orbiting factory for making high-value alloys and semiconductors.

Earlier this month, the historic first attempt to launch satellites from British soil reached space, but ultimately fell short of reaching its target orbit.

On 9 January, after taking off from the runway at Spaceport Cornwall – located in Newquay Airport – and travelling to the designated drop zone, Cosmic Girl, the customised former Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 N744VG that serves as the LauncherOne rocket system’s carrier aircraft, successfully released the rocket from a pylon under its wing.

The rocket ignited its engines, going hypersonic and successfully reaching space. The flight then continued through successful stage separation and ignition of the second stage. However, 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.

Boeing 747 Rocket Launcher

Image credit: Cover Images

Although the mission did not achieve its final orbit, Virgin Orbit has stated that by reaching space and achieving numerous significant first-time achievements, it represents an important step forward.

The effort behind the flight brought together a wide range of partners, including the UK Space Agency, the Royal Air Force, the Civil Aviation Authority, the US Federal Aviation Administration and the National Reconnaissance Office.

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.

Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit CEO, said: “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.”

Matt Archer, director of commercial spaceflight at the UK Space Agency, said: “While this result is disappointing, launching a spacecraft always carries significant risks. Despite this, the project has succeeded in creating a horizontal launch capability at Spaceport Cornwall, and we remain committed to becoming the leading provider of commercial small satellite launch in Europe by 2030, with vertical launches planned from Scotland.”

The failed mission is part of the operation ‘Start Me Up’ – the first launch of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket outside the USA.

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