First UK launch of LauncherOne ends in an accident

On January 9, Virgin Orbit carried out the first ever orbital launch from the territory of Western Europe. Unfortunately, it ended in an accident.

LauncherOne mechanisms and operational history

The LauncherOne rocket debuted in 2021. It became only the second carrier in history to be launched according to the air launch scheme — that is, by dropping from an airplane. The rocket has a two-stage design and can carry up to 500 kg of cargo into low Earth orbit and up to 300 kg of cargo into a 500-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit. The cost of launching LauncherOne is USD 12 million. In the future, Virgin Orbit plans to create a modification of the rocket with an additional upper stage, which will allow launching into geostationary orbit and interplanetary trajectories.

The takeoff of the Cosmic Girl plane with the LauncherOne rocket. Source: Virgin Orbit

In total, Virgin Orbit carried out five LauncherOne launches between 2021 and 2022. The debut flight ended in an accident, subsequent missions were successful. 

First British Virgin Orbit mission

Thanks to its device, LauncherOne can be launched from almost anywhere on Earth, where there is a runway and the necessary infrastructure. Virgin Orbit actively uses this circumstance to increase the number of its customers and expand markets. The company has made a bet on the UK. Virgin Orbit managed to get permission to organize a mission from the Cornwall spaceport in the southwest of England.

The logo of the first British Virgin Orbit mission. Source: Virgin Orbit

The first British Virgin Orbit mission took place on January 9. The Cosmic Girl carrier aircraft (a modified Boeing 747-400) took off, after which it reached the established area over the southeastern coast of Ireland. Next, the crew of the aircraft dropped a rocket.

The first stage of LauncherOne worked in normal mode. The company even managed to publish a tweet in which it announced the successful entry into orbit. But it was too soon. There was a failure at the work site of the second stage. As a result, the rocket failed to reach the first space speed. It reached a maximum height of 185 km, after which it fell into the Atlantic Ocean. Thus, the first orbital launch carried out from the territory of Western Europe ended in failure.

There were nine small satellites on board LauncherOne. The main cargo was a pair of Prometheus-2 CubeSats, created by order of the Ministry of Defense of Great Britain. Also on board the rocket were satellites belonging to customers from the USA, Poland and Oman.

So far, the cause of the LauncherOne crash remains unknown. This failure occurred during a rather difficult period for the company, when it was trying to increase the number of its launches and generate revenue. Earlier, Virgin Orbit announced its intention to double the number of its orbital missions in 2023.

According to

Follow us on Twitter to get the most interesting space news in time