Virgin Orbit comes up short on its first attempt to reach space

Launch service startup Virgin Orbit has come up short on its first attempt to reach orbit today, with the mission terminated soon after ignition of its LauncherOne rocket. While the company’s modified 747 carried the booster to altitude as planned, the operation was brought undone by an “anomaly” soon after its release, with the team now working through the data and gearing up for its next attempt.

Virgin Orbit’s ambitious launch system has been under development for several years, with the company modifying a 747 airplane to carry a rocket beneath its wing. Called the Cosmic Girl mothership, this aircraft is designed to release the LauncherOne rocket at an altitude of around 35,000 ft (10,700 m), at which point the first stage performs an engine burn, before the upper stage separates, performs its own burn and delivers the customer’s payload to orbit.

The company has been edging toward a full demonstration of this capability through a number of test flights, first taking the LauncherOne to the skies in 2018 and even dropping it in midair to ensure the release mechanisms were in working order. Last month it successfully completed a full, end-to-end rehearsal, with the team loading up the tanks with the proper fuels and the aircraft returning to base with everything intact.

LauncherOne is released from Cosmic Girl in mid-flight
LauncherOne is released from Cosmic Girl in mid-flight

Virgin Orbit

This set the stage for today’s Launch Demo, in which the company hoped to reach an altitude of 50 mi (80 km), which NASA considers the edge of space, and release a test payload into orbit. While everything went to plan as Cosmic Girl traveled to altitude and released LauncherOne from beneath its wing, an “anomaly’ occurred shortly after the first stage engine was ignited, with the mission promptly terminated thereafter.

“Our team performed their prelaunch and flight operations with incredible skill today,” says Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart. “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.”

Virgin Orbit says it is in the final stages of integrating this next rocket, with its upcoming attempt to take place after making any necessary alterations to the launch system.

Source: Virgin Orbit

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