Virgin Orbit’s failed launch is a setback for the UK’s space industry

The failed attempt Britain’s first launch of satellites into space dealt a heavy blow to the country’s nascent space program.

Britain’s space business community was full of optimism on Monday as ticket-paying crowds watched a modified Boeing 747 carrying a rocket packed with nine satellites take off from Cornwall Airport in southwest England.

It was just before midnight when things took a turn for the worse. The rocket successfully separated from the aircraft and fired its first stage engine. But at more than 11,000 miles per hour, the rocket “suffered an anomaly, terminating the mission prematurely,” according to Virgin Orbit, the California-based company behind the launch.

A spokeswoman for Virgin Orbit said Tuesday afternoon that the company had not yet completed its analysis of the flight data, but that it appeared the rocket never reached orbit and that the second stage carrying the satellites burned up mostly during re-entry near the western coast of Africa.

Matt Archer, Director of Commercial Spaceflight at the British Space Agency,

said British regulators were reviewing the Virgin Orbit incident, trying to find out “what happened, what caused the problem and how they can fix it going forward”.

While the 747 and its crew returned safely, the nine passengers aboard the rocket were lost. The destruction of these high-tech devices means that their manufacturers and sponsors have potentially lost years of work.

“We believe we have failed to provide our customers with the launch service they deserve,” Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit’s chief executive, said in a statement on Tuesday.

Space launch failures are not uncommon and on the surface it seems unlikely that this will deter Britain’s efforts to become a country that can do more than just make satellites but also to launch them.

“Coming back from the airport, there was a certain stoic and resilient feeling that this is not the end,” said Emma Jones, UK business director of RHEA Group, a Belgian space security company that had a satellite on board the rocket.

Another company that took a hit was In-Space Missions, a British satellite manufacturer. A team at the company has spent the past few years building a pair of small launch monitoring devices, funded by a British Ministry of Defense agency.

“Our two satellites would be two of the most complex and magnificent satellites in the night sky,” said Doug Liddle, the company’s chief executive. “Losing them is very upsetting for everyone.” Most of the devices on board were likely not insured, he said.

Still, British officials and people in the space industry say that although the launch failed, it represented important progress. To organize the launch, Britain had to develop both the necessary infrastructure and regulatory regimes, a long process.

“We didn’t get over the line but we got most of the way there,” Mr Liddle said.

The British government has become more interested in space in recent years, especially under former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who left office last year. Britain has long had an industry making satellites, including companies that make miniature ones devices known as cubesats, which are increasingly being used for communications networks and other purposes.

The country’s space industry pressed on for a launch capability to give it an advantage that will allow it to test devices more easily. The idea received support among some circles in the government.

The war in Ukraine has provided further impetus to the home-launch target, in part because Britain and other countries can no longer rely on paying for carriages aboard Russian launch vehicles as they once did. In addition, the intensive use of satellites in the conflict in Ukraine for intelligence and communications underscores the growing importance of space for national security.

Many of the devices aboard the Virgin Orbit rocket fit this description, including those developed by In-Space Missions. The RHEA Group satellite was to be tested as part of a backup network in case the Global Positioning System’s navigation system was damaged by a cyber attack or technical problem.

Also on board was a cubesat made by AAC Clyde Space, a Scottish company designed to track illegal fishing, smuggling and other maritime activities. Another satellite was a communications device for Oman, an emirate in the Persian Gulf.

British government funding and private funds, totaling about 20 million pounds, or $24 million, helped develop Newquay Airport in Cornwall to be ready to work with satellites, according to Melissa Thorpe, manager of the Cornwall Spaceport, where the flight took off Monday night.

While it is hard to say what effect Monday’s launch failure might have on future government support in Britain, the country’s space industry has momentum. Preparations for vertical rocket launches are already underway at two sites in Scotland.

“The commitment remains as solid as it was yesterday,” said Mr Archer of the British Space Agency. “We have always known that these projects carry risk,” he added.

Virgin Orbit, founded by British entrepreneur Richard Branson, also looks set to return, although Mr Hart, the company’s chief executive, said in an interview just before the failure that launching in Britain had been an “expensive endeavour” due to the need to settling logistical and regulatory issues.

Working out of Cornwall required the company to move from an established base in California’s Mojave Desert to a new one in wet and windy Europe. “The first-time nature of this mission added layers of complexity that our team handled professionally,” Mr. Hart said in a statement after the loss of the rocket and satellites.

Virgin Orbit is a relative newcomer to the satellite launch business, which is dominated by private companies such as SpaceX, a 20-year-old firm owned by billionaire Elon Musk that has launched thousands of Starlink communications satellites into orbit.

By Monday, Virgin Orbit had performed five satellite launches — an initial failure, followed by four successes — all from Mojave. He said he hopes to “return to orbit” after completing his investigation and taking “corrective action.”

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