Virgin Orbit rocket fails in inaugural U.K. launch attempt

By Michael Marrow / January 10, 2023 at 10:22 AM

A Virgin Orbit rocket carrying nine satellites failed yesterday evening, a setback for the company and a blow to the United Kingdom's first ever orbital launch attempt.

Mounted on a modified Boeing 747, the rocket was released from the aircraft and climbed to space but failed to reach its intended orbit, Virgin Orbit announced shortly after disclosing that an “anomaly” had occurred during flight. The rocket’s failure meant the loss of all nine satellites on board, including U.S. and U.K. government payloads.

“We have shown the U.K. is capable of launching into orbit, but the launch was not successful in reaching the required orbit,” U.K. Space Agency Director of Commercial Spaceflight Matt Archer said in the company’s release.

The LauncherOne system, as the rocket is called, previously failed in its first launch attempt in 2020 but has since achieved successful consecutive flights, the most recent being in July 2022. The rocket was intended to demonstrate resilient space launch operations as a collaboration between U.S. and U.K. defense agencies.

Two of the satellites mounted on LauncherOne were jointly developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and the U.K. Ministry of Defence’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory to “measure the ionosphere and radiation environment from multiple vantage points,” Space Systems Command stated in a Jan. 9 press release.

The cubesats, called Coordinated Ionospheric Reconstruction Cubesat Experiment (CIRCE) satellites, were procured by the Space Test Program office in partnership with the Defense Innovation Unit to support STP’s Rapid Agile Launch Initiative, the press release added. According to Virgin Orbit, the launch itself had been procured by the National Reconnaissance Office.

Two other U.K. government payloads, cubesats called Prometheus-2, were also mounted on the rocket and were designed to advance remote sensing capabilities and the development of ground systems. Another satellite was meant to be Oman’s very first orbital mission and pave the way for a future constellation, according to a manifest shared by Virgin Orbit. The other four disclosed payloads were commercial.

“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,” Virgin Orbit Chief Executive Officer Dan Hart said in the company’s release announcing the failed launch.

“We will work tirelessly to understand the nature of this failure, make corrective actions, and return to orbit as soon as we have completed a full investigation and mission assurance process,” he added.