Spaceport Virgin Orbit Cosmic Girl

UK space mission failure blamed on dislodged fuel filter

Image credit: Spaceport Cornwall

A dislodged fuel filter was the reason behind the failure of the first attempt to launch satellites into orbit from the UK, Virgin Orbit has said.

A dislodged fuel filter on the LauncherOne rocket caused an engine to overheat, leading to to the malfunction of components and the premature shutdown of the UK launch. 

The launch took place from Spaceport Cornwall on 9 January this year aboard a customised Boeing 747 that served as the LauncherOne system’s carrier aircraft. Hundreds of members of the public were watching the launch in person and over 75,000 were set to be viewing a live stream of the event.

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).

However, at some point after stage separation and ignition of the second stage, the mission ended prematurely, with the reason remaining a mystery until today. 

“The data is indicating that from the beginning of the second stage first burn, a fuel filter within the fuel feedline had been dislodged from its normal position,” Virgin Orbit said in a statement. 

The Start Me Up mission had been hailed as "historic", and was set to open the door for satellite launches in the UK. In the past, satellites produced in the country have had to be sent to foreign spaceports to make their journey into space.

The lost payloads included 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.

“In space launch, a failure is painful for all involved," said Dan Hart, VirginOrbit's chief executive. “Intense disappointment gets quickly channeled into the motivation to dig into the cause, to understand all contributing elements and to thereby get back to flight with a better system and a wiser team.

“Our investigation is not yet complete; the team is hard at work and we’ll pursue the cause and contributors to wherever the system analysis takes us.

“However, with many clear clues from extensive data assessment now understood, we are modifying our next rocket with a more robust filter and we are looking broadly to assure that all credible contributors to mission failure are rooted out and addressed.

“With those modifications being incorporated on our factory floor, we will proceed cautiously toward the launch of our next rocket, which is well into the integration and test process.”

The plane flew to 35,000ft (10,600m) over the Atlantic Ocean, where it jettisoned the rocket before returning safely.

The rocket components and payload then fell back to Earth within the approved safety corridor in the Atlantic Ocean without achieving orbit.

Over the past year, the UK has been increasingly investing in its space sector. In December, Virgin Orbit became the first company to be awarded a licence by the Civil Aviation Authority to initiate a space launch from UK soil. 

The first vertical space launch is expected to take place later this year from the planned SaxaVord Spaceport on Unst in Shetland and another spaceport has been planned at Llanbedr, Gwynedd, in North Wales.

Paul Kostek, IEEE senior member and systems engineer at Air Direct Solutions LLC has commented: “Over the past year, the industry has seen an expansion of new players. This marks a significant moment in aerospace history as space is no longer limited to just a few countries. As the number of nations with flourishing space programmes and launch capabilities continues to grow, so too does the number of potential projects.

"As witnessed with the "Start Me Up" mission, recent technological developments coupled with lower costs for launching has now opened the playing field.”

Overall, the government has said it hopes commercial space launches will be worth £3.8bn to the UK economy over the next decade.

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