UK rocket launch: space chiefs plan to try again
UK space chiefs said they would try again to send satellites into space from British soil within a year despite the devastating failure of a historic first mission from Cornwall.
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But they accepted the fate of the rocket loaded with nine satellites, which was lost after “a technical failure” while travelling at more than 11,000mph (17,700km/h) as it approached its final orbit, could undermine confidence.
Virgin Orbit, which launched the mission from Spaceport Cornwall, said in the early hours of Tuesday it would “tirelessly” investigate what had caused the failure.
In a statement the company said the customised Boeing 747, Cosmic Girl, had successfully released the LauncherOne rocket, which carried the payload of military and civilian satellites, in the designated drop-zone off the southern coast of Ireland.
It said: “The rocket then ignited its engines, quickly going hypersonic and successfully reaching space. The flight then continued through successful stage separation and ignition of the second stage. However, at some point during the firing of the rocket’s second stage engine and with the rocket travelling at a speed of more than 11,000mph, the system experienced an anomaly, ending the mission prematurely.”
Dan Hart, the Virgin Orbit chief executive, 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; 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 added that out of five LauncherOne missions carrying payloads for private companies and governmental agencies, this was the first to fall short of their target orbits. But it said it had demonstrated that space launch was achievable from UK soil.
The UK Space Agency said the rocket and satellites would have burned up as they re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, probably above the north Atlantic, and there had been no threat to life. The 747 safely returned to Spaceport Cornwall near Newquay.
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Matt Archer, the agency’s director of commercial spaceflight, said: “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.”
Ian Annett, the agency’s deputy chief executive, was asked whether the failure would make satellite owners pause before taking part in future launches in the UK. He replied: “Flight heritage [an industry term for proof a technology works in space] is an important factor.” But he said: “We would expect to see further launches from the UK within a year.”
The mission’s failure is a huge blow for Spaceport Cornwall, which staged a festival around the launch attended by thousands of people. It had hoped a successful mission would be a huge boost to the region’s growing space sector.
Melissa Thorpe, the head of Spaceport Cornwall, said: “We made it to space – a UK first. Today we inspired millions, and we will continue to look to inspire millions more. Not just with our ambition but also with our fortitude. Yes, space is hard, but we are only just getting started.”