26 May 2020

Richard Branson's Virgin Orbit LauncherOne rocket fails on first launch mission

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit ’LauncherOne’ rocket has been unsuccessful in its first attempt to launch a test satellite into space.

The maiden mission of the new LauncherOne rocket initially appeared to be going to plan with a ’clean release’ from one of Branson’s old jumbos, Cosmic Girl, which had been specially converted for the mission.

The 21.3m (70ft) rocket was successfully released over the Pacific Ocean after the jet took off from Mojave Air and Space Port in Los Angeles, but a subsequent anomaly meant the flight had to be terminated.

Virgin Orbit tweeted: "We've confirmed a clean release from the aircraft. However, the mission terminated shortly into the flight.

"Cosmic Girl and our flight crew are safe and returning to base."

The rocket was intended to fall for a couple of seconds before igniting and heading down the coast in the direction of the South Pole, before the satellite it was carrying went into orbit.

The hope was that the flight could gather information and data regarding the steps of the launch process from a low orbit, meaning it would not become a contributor to the growing space litter problem.

The intended launch plan (Virgin Orbit)

At a pre-flight briefing on Saturday, Will Pomerantz, Virgin Orbit's vice president for special projects, said that around 50% of all first rocket launches fail.

"History is not terribly kind, necessarily, to maiden flights," he said.

It has not yet been revealed as to how long this will set the company back, but Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart remains optimistic following the initial failure.

He said: "Test flights are instrumented to yield data and we now have a treasure trove of that. We accomplished many of the goals we set for ourselves, though not as many as we would have liked.

“Nevertheless, we took a big step forward today. Our engineers are already poring through the data. Our next rocket is waiting. We will learn, adjust, and begin preparing for our next test, which is coming up soon."

Branson’s company currently has six more rockets under construction and Virgin say they have dozens of missions worth ’hundreds of millions’ already booked in for high profile customers, including the US Space Force and the Royal Air Force.

They are also working on plans for launches from both the United Kingdom and Japan.

Elon Musk, owner of rival company SpaceX, tweeted his commiserations that the launch had failed.

"Orbit is hard. Took us four attempts with Falcon 1," he said.

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