Virgin Orbit launched nine small satellites atop a rocket dropped from a 747 jumbo jet south of Ireland on Monday, but the booster suffered a failure during the climb to space and the payloads were lost, the company said.
The 747 “Cosmic Girl” jet took off from Cornwall Airport Newquay near Britain’s southwest coast in what had been billed as the first orbital launch from the United Kingdom and western Europe.
The repurposed Virgin Atlantic passenger jet, with the 70-foot-long 57,000-pound LauncherOne rocket tucked under its left wing, took off just after 5 p.m. EST, cheered on by airport workers, area residents and government officials as it slowly climbed away to the west and disappeared from view over the Atlantic Ocean.
After reaching an altitude of around 35,000 feet off the southern coast of Ireland, the aircraft carried out a racetrack-like loop around the drop point while engineers made final checks and verified the rocket’s readiness for launch.
Then, approaching the drop point a second time, LauncherOne was released. As the 747 banked sharply away to provide plenty of clearance, the rocket’s first stage engine ignited with 80,000 pounds of thrust to begin the southwesterly climb to space.
Three minutes later, the first stage fell away and the ascent continued on the power of the second stage engine, providing 5,000 pounds of push. Virgin confirmed stage separation and ignition of the second stage engine, but it was not clear if the burn was completed as planned or whether a problem developed after engine shutdown.
After a few long moments of silence, Virgin’s webcast commentator said “it appears LauncherOne has suffered an anomaly, which will prevent us from making orbit on this mission.” The company then tweeted the same, adding “we are evaluating the information.”
The company initially tweeted the rocket had reached orbit, but then posted an update, saying “as we find out more, we’re removing our previous tweet about reaching orbit. We’ll share more info when we can.”
On board for Monday’s launching were nine small satellites representing a mix of government and private-sector projects in Britain, the United States, Oman, Poland and the European Space Agency.
The Aman satellite, Oman’s first, was a small Earth-observation platform built in collaboration with SatRevolution, a Polish “new space” satellite developer. Britain’s Defense Science and Technology Laboratory and the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory sponsored two CubeSats to study the ionosphere.
Britain and the European Space Agency collaborated on a satellite known as DOVER, designed to test advanced global navigation technology, while Space Forge of Wales developed an experimental platform to test Earth-return technology.
The manifest was rounded out by IOD-3 Amber, the first of more than 20 British-built satellites designed to provide space-based “marine domain awareness,” and STORK-6, the fourth in a series of SatRevolution multi-spectral Earth-observation CubeSats.
Virgin’s LauncherOne, built in the United States, had completed five flights before Monday’s launch. The initial flight carrying a dummy payload was a failure, but the following four missions, carrying a variety of “smallsats” were successful.
All of those flights originated at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Virgin founder Richard Branson looked to Monday’s flight to demonstrate a unique ability to launch small satellites from anywhere in the world.
“Europe has never put a satellite into space and the one cool thing about using a Virgin Atlantic 747 is that we can fly to any country and we can put satellites into space, and we can do it at a moment’s notice,” he said before launch.
But not quite yet.