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Virgin Orbit’s first U.K. rocket flight ends in failure

Virgin Orbit’s attempt to become the first spaceflight company to launch an orbital rocket from Western Europe has ended in failure.

Billed as a breakthrough mission for the U.K.’s space sector, Virgin Orbit’s modified Boeing 747 jet, called Cosmic Girl, took off from Spaceport Cornwall about 215 miles west of London late on Monday evening local time (late afternoon ET).

Once Cosmic Girl reached 30,000 feet, it released the Launcher One rocket carrying nine small satellites for various commercial customers.

In a tweet, Virgin Orbit confirmed a “clean separation from Cosmic Girl and successful ignition of LauncherOne’s first stage rocket engine, NewtonThree,” suggesting everything was going to plan.

A short while later, the team confirmed “successful stage separation and ignition of LauncherOne’s second stage engine, NewtonFour.”

The next message said the rocket would deploy the payload once the rocket had coasted halfway around Earth, but soon after, Virgin Orbit revealed the mission had not gone according to plan.

“We appear to have an anomaly that has prevented us from reaching orbit,” it said. “We are evaluating the information.”

Virgin Orbit’s launch system differs from the likes of SpaceX and Rocket Lab in that it deploys rockets from beneath the wing of a modified jumbo jet that can take off from a regular airstrip. This gives it more flexibility about where it can launch missions from, thereby giving companies and organizations around the world easier access to space.

Virgin Orbit has completed four successful missions to date, all of them launching from the Mojave Air and Space Port in the California desert. The first of these took place in January 2021, while the most recent mission was in July 2022.

The failure to achieve its first successful mission from U.K. soil is a serious setback for Virgin Orbit, especially as it was carrying equipment for paying customers.

It’s still too early to say what went wrong, but the mishap throws into serious doubt Virgin Orbit’s ability to launch its next mission, a flight for the U.S. Air Force later this month from its California facility.

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