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UK satellite launch attempt fails after rocket ‘anomaly’


Britain’s historic attempt to launch the first commercial satellites from Western Europe failed on Monday night when Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket encountered an “unusual problem” that prevented it from reaching orbit.

The failed mission was a heavy blow not only to the UK, which had hope to beat rival spaceports in Norway and Sweden to claim the crown as Europe’s leading launch service provider, but also in Virgin Orbit, the company is aiming to demonstrate that its horizontal launch system can deliver satellites fly from anywhere in the world using a suitable runway.

It is also a significant obstacle for the seven customers with satellites on Virgin The orbital rocket, launched from Newquay Airport, Cornwall, just after 10pm.

These include a joint military research mission between the UK and the US, Oman’s first orbital spacecraft designed to observe the earth, a demonstration satellite from the UK’s Space Forge start-up. UK and a payload designed to track maritime activity from the UK’s Satellite Application Launcher.

Virgin Orbit announced the “abnormality” 10 minutes before midnight, less than an hour after the rocket was launched from Cosmic Girl, a converted Boeing 747 jumbo jet to launch LauncherOne at high altitude. 35,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.

The mission seemed to go so smoothly that Virgin Orbit soon posted on Twitter that their rocket had reached orbit. Cosmic Girl launched the rocket without any problems, and it abandoned the first stage.

But at 11:46 p.m., just as the jumbo jet was safely landing in Newquay, Virgin Orbit suddenly posted on Twitter: “We seem to have an anomaly that is preventing us from reaching orbit. We are evaluating the information.”

Image from a live stream of boosters firing at Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne

Image from a live stream of boosters firing at Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne © PA

The company soon halted the live stream, which drew nearly 50,000 viewers, thanking customers and Spaceport Cornwall for their efforts.

Alice Bunn, president of trade body UKspace, said the failure was a disappointment, but she hoped the UK would make a second attempt.

“Space is hard,” she said. “If you look back at the history of space, there have been quite a few failures. You figure out what happened and then you get up and try again.

The UK has taken a very commercial approach to developing space capabilities, she said, which will allow for quicker decisions on an innovation endeavor than some of its European rivals. Europe.

However, it remains unclear how long Virgin Orbit will be able to try again. Matt Archer, director of commercial spaceflight at the UK Space Agency, told journalists at the site that Virgin Orbit and the UK government would investigate the incident, according to Reuters. “The second-stage engine experienced technical problems and failed to reach the required trajectory,” he said.

An investigation may take some time, depending on the cause and severity of the problem. Last month, Europe’s medium-range Vega-C missile failed and is expected to be suspended for several months while the investigation is conducted.

Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, was also quoted by the BBC, saying the failure was “totally gut-wrenching”.

“We still don’t have much more information about the cause of the anomaly – it looks like we’ll need to wait until the experts look into the matter,” she said. “Virgin will drill down into the data.”

Cornwall is the first of seven proposed UK spaceports to go live, offering horizontal launch services. Sites such as SaxaVord, in the Shetlands and Sutherland, on Scotland’s north coast, will offer vertical launch services.

All spaceports will target smaller satellites intended for low Earth orbit, from which more and more commercial services such as high-speed broadband and climate monitoring will be available. moved to Earth.

Space analysts at Euroconsult estimate that 18,500 satellites weighing less than 500kg will be launched into low Earth orbit over the next decade.

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