Virgin Orbit: UK’s first ever space mission fails after suffering ‘anomaly’ in anti-climatic letdown
A rocket carrying the first satellite launched from British territory failed to reach orbit after it suffered an anomaly, thwarting the UK’s historic quest to become the first European country to send satellites into space.
The Cosmic Girl, a modified Boeing 747, took off on Monday night from Spaceport Cornwall and travelled over the Atlantic to the cheers of the crowd that had gathered for hours to watch the launch.
It successfully launched its LauncherOne rocket, which was carrying a payload of nine satellites off the coast of Ireland. However, Virgin Orbit, which was leading the mission, declared shortly after that there had been "an anomaly" and the rocket had failed to achieve the needed altitude.
The Guardian reported that the rocket and satellites were lost, although the UK Space Agency said they presented no threat and were expected to burn up or disintegrate over the north Atlantic. The 747 safely returned to Cornwall.
Matt Archer, director of commercial spaceflight at the UK Space Agency, expressed disappointment that the mission had failed, but was glad that the first launch of European satellites from British soil had taken place.
He said the first stage of the two-stage rocket launch was successful, but the second stage failed, preventing the rocket from reaching the required altitude and orbit. He said: “We don’t know what caused the anomaly but we achieved a launch.”
He added: “A lot of positives have been achieved. Space is hard. We knew that this had a risk of failure. Launches don’t always work. We’ve created the conditions for launch here. We’ve shown we can do it and we’ll look to do it again.”
The Start Me Up mission was hailed as the beginning of a new space era for the UK. Soon after the launch, Virgin Orbit tweeted: “LauncherOne has … successfully reached Earth orbit! Our mission isn’t over yet, but our congratulations to the people of the UK! This is already the first-ever orbital mission from British soil – an enormous achievement.”
It then removed the tweet and tweeted that the mission had failed just 28 minutes later. It said: “We appear to have an anomaly that has prevented us from reaching orbit. We are evaluating the information.” The crowd reportedly quickly and quietly dispersed following the announcement of failure.
Melissa Thorpe, the head of Spaceport Cornwall, expressed disappointment but added: “We’re a resilient team. This isn’t the first time we’ve been knocked but this is definitely the biggest. We’ll get up and we’ll go again.It’s just absolutely devastating, and we put our hearts and soul into this. The next time we go it will be even better.”
The failure has since prompted Internet memes on Twitter, with people making fun of a looping “racetrack” pattern on the flight path that eventually saw the plane head back towards the UK.
One user likened the pattern to a Microsoft Word’s Office Assistant, ‘Paperclip’ that would help users navigate the software. She said: “This feckin’ guy! Always popping up when you don’t want him. #VirginOrbit.”
Another user joked: “BREAKING NEWS: LauncherOne rocket fails to reach orbit after colliding with what is suspected to be the ball from Harry Kane’s penalty during the World Cup in Qatar. More to follow.” The tweet was accompanied by a picture of a ball about to collide with the plane.