The historic “Start Me Up” mission from Virgin Orbit launched from Spaceport Cornwell on January 9th as planned, but it failed to reach orbit and ultimately failed. If you follow the company’s tweets during the event, you’ll notice that everything went swimmingly at first.
Virgin Orbit confirmed the separation of LauncherOne from its carrier aircraft, Cosmic Girl, as well as the ignition of its NewtonThree first stage rocket engine.
The mission also appeared to have completed a successful stage separation, with the company tweeting about the ignition of NewtonFour, the second stage engine. “LauncherOne is now officially in space!” reads the following tweet.
The upper stage of LauncherOne shut down and was supposed to coast halfway around our planet before deploying its payload. According to Ars Technica, the next tweet stated that the rocket and its payload satellites had successfully reached orbit.
However, the company deleted that tweet and replaced it with an announcement stating that an anomaly prevented the mission from reaching orbit on time.
According to Reuters, a graphic display seen on the launch’s video feed showed that the mission had reached second-stage cutoff but had stopped three steps ahead of payload deployment a few hours after takeoff.
The UK Space Agency’s Commercial Space Director, Matt Archer, stated that the government and various entities, including the company, will conduct an investigation into the failure in the coming days.
According to Archer, the second stage experienced a “technical anomaly and did not reach the required orbit.” It’s unclear what the investigation entails, but Virgin Orbit has promised to provide more information as soon as possible. Meanwhile, Cosmic Girl and her crew were able to safely return to Spaceport Cornwall.
The mission carried satellite payloads from seven commercial and government customers. They include CIRCE (Coordinated Ionospheric Reconstruction CubeSat Experiment), a UK-US joint project, and two CubeSats for the UK Ministry of Defense’s Prometheus-2 initiative.
According to Ars, this failure could have a significant impact on the company, which is currently struggling to launch enough missions to break even. “Start Me Up” was not only the first orbital launch from British soil, but it was also Virgin Orbit’s first international launch and the first commercial launch from Western Europe.
It had the potential to be a high-profile success for the company, demonstrating to potential customers what it is capable of.
Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit CEO, said in a statement, “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.”