The first attempt to launch satellites from British soil last night ultimately failed after the rocket experienced an ‘anomaly.’

Andrew Wooden

January 10, 2023

4 Min Read
virgin orbit

The first attempt to launch satellites from British soil last night ultimately failed after the rocket experienced an ‘anomaly.’

After taking off from the runway at Spaceport Cornwall, Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl – a customized 747 that serves as the LauncherOne system’s carrier aircraft – did successfully release a rocket into space, however at some point during the firing of the its second stage engine the system experienced an anomaly, ‘ending the mission prematurely.’

What this means practically is that the satellites did not reach orbit, which presumably means they’ll have come back down or burned up in the atmosphere. Speaking to the BBC, Matt Archer, the agency’s launch programme director, could not confirm whether the rocket had fallen back to Earth but said that if it did, it would have come down over unpopulated areas.

Dubbed the Start Me Up mission, the launch was a collaborative effort between the UK Space Agency, Cornwall Council, the Royal Air Force, and Virgin Orbit, and was intended to carry satellites from seven customers to space, including commercial and government payloads from several nations. It represented the first orbital launch from UK soil or from anywhere in western Europe, we’re told.

The chief innovation with Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rockets seems to be that they are air-launched horizontally from the wing of a converted aircraft, and as such it does not need a traditional spaceport which carries out ‘vertical launches’, just a runway long enough to handle a Boeing 747.

The satellites it was carrying had range of functions, including ‘reducing the environmental impact of production’, preventing illegal trafficking, smuggling, and terrorism, and some ‘national security’ missions.

Spaceport Cornwall received the UK’s first-ever spaceport license from the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in November. In late December, Virgin Orbit was given ‘launch and range’ control licenses, which is basically regulatory permission to execute a launch.  Start Me Up was the fifth Virgin Orbit launch to carry payloads for private companies and government agencies, and it has deployed 33 satellites via LauncherOne prior to this latest attempt.

“Last night, Virgin Orbit attempted the first orbital launch from Spaceport Cornwall,” said Matt Archer, Director of Commercial Spaceflight at the UK Space Agency. “We have shown the UK is capable of launching into orbit, but the launch was not successful in reaching the required orbit. We will work closely with Virgin Orbit as they investigate what caused the anomaly in the coming days and weeks.

“While this result is disappointing, 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.”

Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit CEO, added: “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 through; 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.”

While the launch was not a success, Virgin Orbit is keen to put a positive spin on things, claiming that by reaching space and completing some first-time achievements, the launch represents ‘an important step forward.’

Which is fair enough – launching satellites into space is notoriously expensive and difficult, and in principle being able to do it via a plane as opposed to a vertical rocket would appear to be an easier way of doing things – though that’s perhaps that’s not a point that can be made too strongly in the immediate aftermath of this failed mission.

To rub salt into the wound, LEO firm OneWeb announced yesterday it successfully deployed 40 satellites launched by SpaceX from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. It now has 542 satellites in orbit, which is about means 80% of its first-generation constellation has been launched.

These is a ton of activity in the satellite sector at the moment, and it’s got to the point where US FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworce last November proposed the Federal Communications Commission’s International Bureau be split into two distinct divisions – the Space Bureau and the Office of International Affairs – so it can do a better job of regulating the space industry.

According to Rosenworcel, the FCC was at that point was processing 64,000 applications for new satellites, and 2021 saw an eight-fold increase in applications for satellite gateways. Apparently companies are applying for permission to carry out increasingly novel activities as well, including lunar landers and space antenna farms for comms relays.

Here is a video Virgin Orbit put out a few days ago explaining the Start Me Up mission, which no doubt will not be its last attempt to fire off some satellites from the UK.


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About the Author(s)

Andrew Wooden

Andrew joins on the back of an extensive career in tech journalism and content strategy.

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