What should have been a historic moment for the UK ended in failure last night after an undisclosed “anomaly” prevented the country’s satellite mission from reaching orbit. The Virgin Orbit “Start Me Up” mission was the very first missile to be launched from British soil.
The first phase of the mission proved successful: Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl (a converted Boeing 747 serving as an aircraft carrier) took off from Spaceport Cornwell on January 9 as planned and released the LauncherOne rocket over the Atlantic Ocean at 23:11 GMT (18:11 ET). According to the live Virgin Orbit mission updates on Twitterthe LauncherOne missile experienced successful stage separation and engine ignition in the second stage.
Virgin One initially tweeted: “LauncherOne has…successfully reached orbit! Our mission isn’t over yet, but congratulations to the people of the UK! This is already the first ever orbital mission from UK soil – a huge performance.” This tweet was later deleted and replaced with an update stating that an anomaly had prevented the rocket from entering orbit.
The LauncherOne rocket carried a payload of nine satellites, the first to be manufactured in Wales. These satellites were not released and were lost along with the LauncherOne rocket. Cosmic Girl and crew returned safely to Spaceport Cornwall. “It’s just absolutely devastating and we’re putting our hearts and souls into this,” said Melissa Thorpe, the head of Spaceport Cornwall in a statement to The protector. “Next time we go, it will be even better.”
This is the first LauncherOne mission to fail to deliver its payloads from five launch attempts. The first test flight in May 2020 also suffered an anomaly while carrying a weighted dummy payload as a practice for real customer satellites.
Matt Archer, Commercial Space Director at the UK Space Agency, said in an official statement that the agency will work with Virgin One to investigate what caused the anomaly in the coming days and weeks. “We will work tirelessly to understand the nature of the disturbance, take corrective action, and return to space once we have completed a full investigation and mission assurance process.”