The first ever orbital satellite launch from the UK — and Europe — was set for takeoff on Monday, January 9. The so-called “Start Me UP” mission, led by US-based Virgin Orbit, set out from Spaceport Cornwall at Newquay Airport at around 21:15 UTC.
At the center of the mission was a modified Boeing 747 aircraft, the Cosmic Girl, fitted with Virgin Orbit’s Launcher One rocket, which was carrying nine civil and defense satellites.
Interested viewers who watched the launch via Virgin Orbit’s livestream below were faced with disappointment: the mission failed.
Cosmic Girl was to take off from Spaceport Cornwall and ascend to an altitude of 35,000 feet (10.6 kilometers) above the Atlantic Ocean. Following about an hour of flying, it would release the rocket. Launcher One would then perform one orbital burn with each of its two stages before releasing the satellites.
According to Virgin Orbit, Cosmic Girl successfully released the rocket, which managed to reach space. But during the firing of Launcher One’s second stage engine — at which point the rocket was traveling at a speed of more than 17,703km/h — “the system experienced an anomaly,” ending the mission.
Dan Hart, the company’s CEO, noted that a “technical failure” seems to be the reason behind the rocket’s unsuccessful attempt to deliver 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,” he added.
A future successful mission will be a major milestone for the UK’s space sector, marking the beginning of a domestic-based launch industry.
“The development of new orbital launch capabilities is already generating growth, catalyzing investment, and creating jobs in Cornwall and other communities across the United Kingdom,” Ian Annett, Deputy CEO at the UK Space Agency, said in a previous statement.
“I look forward to seeing more launches from other UK spaceports over the next year, putting us firmly on the map as Europe’s leading destination for commercial small satellite launch,” he continued.