Virgin Orbit’s first rocket launch from a Boeing 747 ends in failure

Virgin Orbit’s first attempt to send a rocket to space by launching it from beneath the wing of a Boeing 747 jet plane has ended in failure.

The test mission, which took place high over the Pacific Ocean on Monday, succeeded in releasing the booster from the aircraft as planned. But just seconds after the rocket engine ignited, an anomaly occurred that forced the termination of the space flight.

The Boeing 747, called Cosmic Girl, returned safely to Virgin Orbit’s base in California’s Mojave Desert.

The Virgin Galactic spinoff wants to use its system to launch small satellites for companies, and had Monday’s test gone to plan, its LauncherOne rocket would have deployed a dummy satellite in space as a demonstration. But it wasn’t to be.

Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said later that despite LauncherOne’s failure to reach space, the team had managed to achieve its first in-air booster ignition. The outing also yielded lots of useful data to help engineers hone the system.

“We accomplished many of the goals we set for ourselves, though not as many as we would have liked,” Hart said, noting that despite the setback, it had taken “a big step forward” with Monday’s mission.

The CEO added, “Our next rocket is waiting. We will learn, adjust, and begin preparing for our next test, which is coming up soon.”

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX — another company that’s exploring the small-satellite-launch market — tweeted some words of sympathy following the failed attempt, at the same time pointing out that it took SpaceX four attempts to get to orbit with Falcon 1 more than a decade ago.

Virgin Orbit says that its unique air-launch system will take advantage of a global network of spaceports to give companies seeking to deploy small satellites more options for when and where they fly into orbit. The video below offers a useful overview of Virgin Orbit’s launch system and long-term plan.

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