Historic first orbital launch from British soil fails

Historic first orbital launch from British soil fails

Historic first orbital launch from British soil FAILS: Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket suffers ‘anomaly’ that scuppers bid to deliver nine satellites to space from Cornwall

  • The first orbital launch from British soil failed on Monday night, after Virgin Orbit rocket suffered an ‘anomaly’ 
  • A converted Virgin 747 jumbo jet took off from Newquay Airport with a 70ft-long rocket attached to its belly
  • It headed out to Atlantic, where it dropped LauncherOne rocket which headed to space with nine satellites
  • However, Virgin Orbit tweeted shortly after that an ‘anomaly’ had prevented the rocket from reaching orbit

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Britain’s historic first ever orbital space launch on UK soil dramatically failed last night, after Virgin Orbit revealed that an ‘anomaly’ had prevented its rocket from reaching orbit.

Sir Richard Branson’s company originally appeared to announce that it had succeeded in its goal to deliver nine satellites to space on Virgin’s 70ft-long LauncherOne rocket.

But about 40 minutes later the firm said an ‘anomaly’ had occurred and it deleted its tweet about reaching orbit.

A repurposed Virgin 747 jumbo jet had taken off from Cornwall shortly after 22:00 GMT on Monday and just over an hour later dropped LauncherOne from its belly.

Devastating: Britain’s historic first ever orbital space launch on UK soil dramatically failed last night, after Virgin Orbit revealed that an ‘anomaly’ had prevented its rocket from reaching orbit. Pictured is the moment the rocket ignited

TIMELINE: HOW VIRGIN’S CORNWALL SPACE LAUNCH WENT WRONG

22:02 GMT: Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl space plane takes off from Spaceport Cornwall

23:10 GMT: After reaching its launch zone just off the coast of Ireland, Cosmic Girl deploys the rocket attached to its belly

23:11 GMT: The rocket heads past Portugal as it ascends to space

23:25 GMT: Virgin appears to suggest on Twitter that the mission has succeeded in reaching orbit 

23:50 GMT: But it then emerges that an ‘anomaly’ has occurred which prevented the rocket from deploying its payload of satellites into orbit

23:55 GMT: Cosmic Girl returns to Cornwall Spaceport as disheartened spectators watch on

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The rocket then hurtled towards space at 8,000 mph, heading in the direction of Portugal as it ascended, before seemingly breaking through the Earth’s atmosphere. 

However, it later emerged that something had gone wrong on what was supposed to be a momentous night for the UK space industry.

Virgin Orbit did not elaborate on the problem, saying only that it was ‘evaluating the information’.

It had been hoped that the launch would officially mark the UK entering the space race more than 70 years after the British Space Programme was established in 1952.

The mission had been going smoothly as Virgin’s space plane – named Cosmic Girl – reached its target launch zone just off the south coast of Ireland and deployed LauncherOne at an altitude of 35,000ft above the Atlantic.

Mathew ‘Stanny’ Stannard, an RAF Squadron Leader who is on secondment as Virgin Orbit’s chief pilot, was at the controls, while his co-pilot Eric Bippert pushed the ‘Big Red Button’ to drop Branson’s rocket at about 23:10 GMT.

This made the jumbo bank hard to the right, taking it away from the moment the rocket ignited four seconds after falling.

All seemed well as Virgin celebrated its ‘successful’ UK launch, only for there to be a conspicuous lack of information before the company revealed details of the ‘anomaly’.

Confusion then broke out among the spectators who had gathered to witness the historic launch in person or via Virgin Orbit’s live stream, as Cosmic Girl returned to a somewhat lukewarm reception at Cornwall Spaceport at about 23:55 GMT.

Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, said: ‘I’m absolutely devastated. 

‘We put our heart and soul into this, it’s such a personal journey for me as well  my family were here so yeah, it’s pretty pretty rough.

‘But I feel okay, and I think it will just be a few days and just kind of letting it sink in a little bit.

She added: ‘I got to see everybody picking up on the excitement, the kids, the conga line that was out.

‘It was so brilliant, I don’t think that (the failure) should take away from it. We saw how much this could attract people. I’ve had so many kids taking videos of themselves, making their own rockets.

‘For me, for Cornwall, it hasn’t exactly gone to plan but we’ve done everything that we were going to do as a spaceport here. Stay with us, please.’

Asked if the spaceport would try again, she said: ‘Of course we do. That’s space.’

Space X and other companies had got in touch, she said, to say ‘we’ve been there’.

Mathew 'Stanny' Stannard, an RAF Squadron Leader who is on secondment as Virgin Orbit's chief pilot, was at the controls, while his co-pilot Eric Bippert pushed the 'Big Red Button' to drop Sir Richard Branson's rocket at about 23:10 GMT

Mathew ‘Stanny’ Stannard, an RAF Squadron Leader who is on secondment as Virgin Orbit’s chief pilot, was at the controls, while his co-pilot Eric Bippert pushed the ‘Big Red Button’ to drop Sir Richard Branson’s rocket at about 23:10 GMT

The Virgin Orbit space plane - named Cosmic Girl - reached an altitude of 35,000ft and deployed LauncherOne when it reached the launch zone above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the south coast of Ireland

The Virgin Orbit space plane – named Cosmic Girl – reached an altitude of 35,000ft and deployed LauncherOne when it reached the launch zone above the Atlantic Ocean, just off the south coast of Ireland 

Cosmic Girl left Newquay Airport at 22:02 GMT and flew out to the Atlantic. It then dropped a 70ft-long LauncherOne rocket

Cosmic Girl left Newquay Airport at 22:02 GMT and flew out to the Atlantic. It then dropped a 70ft-long LauncherOne rocket

Rather than the iconic vertical launches we’re accustomed to from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, this one had been a horizontal launch because it involved a plane taking off and releasing a rocket mid-air. 

Earlier, spectators whooped and danced to Start Me Up by the Rolling Stones as the jet took off, with people climbing onto each other shoulders to witness a moment which had promised to deliver the birth of a home-grown space launch industry.

A further 75,000 people watched online via a live stream on Virgin Orbit’s YouTube channel.

In the past, satellites produced in the UK have needed to be sent to foreign spaceports to make their journey into space. 

The Soviet Union was the first nation to carry out a successful space launch, with Sputnik 1 in October 1957, before the United States, Japan, France, China, India, Israel and Iran all followed.

North Korea achieved the feat in 2012, along with South Korea earlier this year, so Britain is the 11th nation to carry out a space launch on its own soil — although the fact it failed makes it somewhat of a hollow claim.

Not only was the mission the first of its kind from Britain, it also came five decades after a UK-made rocket, Black Arrow, last reached space following its lift-off from Australia.

The launch followed months of delays, with Virgin Orbit citing technical and regulatory challenges in getting ready for take-off. 

How the launch worked: Cornwall hosted he first ever orbital space launch on UK soil, despite it ultimately ending in failure. A former Virgin passenger plane took to the skies and then dropped a rocket that flew towards space (shown above), only to suffer an 'anomaly'

How the launch worked: Cornwall hosted he first ever orbital space launch on UK soil, despite it ultimately ending in failure. A former Virgin passenger plane took to the skies and then dropped a rocket that flew towards space (shown above), only to suffer an ‘anomaly’

Virgin Orbit's specially-adapted 747 jumbo jet with a rocket attached to its belly took off from Cornwall Spaceport at 22:02 GMT. A live stream of the mission was available to view via the company's YouTube channel (pictured)

Virgin Orbit’s specially-adapted 747 jumbo jet with a rocket attached to its belly took off from Cornwall Spaceport at 22:02 GMT. A live stream of the mission was available to view via the company’s YouTube channel (pictured)

There was huge excitement at Newquay Airport ahead of the first orbital space launch on British soil yesterday evening

There was huge excitement at Newquay Airport ahead of the first orbital space launch on British soil yesterday evening

Viewers attending the launch included Adrian Grint, a 46-year-old IT consultant from St Austell in Cornwall, who dressed as a green alien. He held a sign saying 'take me home'

Viewers attending the launch included Adrian Grint, a 46-year-old IT consultant from St Austell in Cornwall, who dressed as a green alien. He held a sign saying ‘take me home’

WHAT SATELLITES WERE SUPPOSED TO BE DELIVERED TO SPACE? 

Virgin Orbit was supposed to be sending two UK governments cubesats – measuring about 12 inches long, 8 inches wide and 4 inches deep – into space along with seven other payloads as part of a mission named Prometheus-2.

A number of the satellites were designed to carry out research and development, proving technologies for use on later operational spacecraft. 

The cereal box-sized Cubesat 1′ and ‘Cubesat 2’ spacecraft were supposed to test new equipment to image the Earth, as well as new types of radio.

The hope was that they would be able to monitor the transmission environment and one day be used to detect the communications of smugglers or illegal fishers at sea.

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Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said: ‘We knew this was not going to be a piece of cake when we took up on the opportunity.

‘We worked very closely with the UK Space Agency, the Civil Aviation Authority and Spaceport Cornwall, as well as the international airspace community.

‘I think we have learned a lot doing that. I think, like any first, the first time you do it is difficult, the second time you already know and can anticipate.

‘The short answer is we are excited to be here, and we’re excited about the future and coming back as soon as later this year to launch again.’ 

Virgin Orbit was trying to deliver two UK governments cubesats – measuring about 12 inches long, 8 inches wide and 4 inches deep – into space along with seven other payloads as part of a mission named Prometheus-2.

Built by In-Space Missions Ltd, based in Hampshire, and designed with Airbus Defence and Space, Prometheus-2 is a collaboration between MoD and international partners, including the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

A number of the satellites were meant to carry out research and development, proving technologies for use on later operational spacecraft. 

The cereal box-sized Cubesat 1′ and ‘Cubesat 2’ spacecraft were designed to test new equipment to image the Earth, as well as new types of radio.

Ahead of the launch, science minister George Freeman said: ‘This really is a genuinely big moment for UK science & Technology, a momentous occasion: the first time in history that there has even been a satellite launch from European soil.

‘It’s the delivery of our first major milestone in my UK Space Industry Strategy I set out 18 months ago.

‘It’s a big sign of UK commitment to be a fully integrated player in the rapidly emerging commercial Space sector.’

He added: ‘Tonight marks the dawn of a new era for UK space that will inspire a new generation of space scientists and innovators, and lay the foundations for technological leadership, just as the Apollo mission did for the USA in the 1960s.’

Virgin Orbit had released maps that showed the route of the rocket (the blue line) and the timings for when people across Britain and beyond might be able to catch a glimpse of it in the sky

Virgin Orbit had released maps that showed the route of the rocket (the blue line) and the timings for when people across Britain and beyond might be able to catch a glimpse of it in the sky

The company said it would be possible for most people in the UK and Ireland to see LauncherOne within 60 seconds of ignition, while those living on the coast of France, Portugal, and Spain would get a good view within two to three minutes, it added

The company said it would be possible for most people in the UK and Ireland to see LauncherOne within 60 seconds of ignition, while those living on the coast of France, Portugal, and Spain would get a good view within two to three minutes, it added

Cornwall horizontal’s launch site is one of three spaceports in the UK that aim to start satellite launches in 2023, with two more in Scotland due to come online later this year.

Its development is expected to create around 150 jobs and allow the UK to compete in the global market for deploying small satellites into Earth orbit — an industry forecast to be worth £3.9 billion by 2030 which Branson is hoping to tap into.

The site is targeting two unmanned commercial space flights a year from this year, but has a licence for up to 12. 

Virgin Orbit, which has performed three commercial flights in the US, wants Cornwall to be its first base outside America.

Mr Hart previously told MailOnline that human spaceflight was ‘not currently part of the company’s plans’ for the Newquay facility. 

But he said Spaceport Cornwall could be used to send probes to Mars, Venus and the moon within the next three or four years.

‘Lunar missions and smaller craft bound for Venus and Mars could be launched [from Spaceport Cornwall] within the next three or four years,’ he added.

The Virgin Orbit Launcher One rocket had been equipped with Ministry of Defence observation kit as part of its payload

The Virgin Orbit Launcher One rocket had been equipped with Ministry of Defence observation kit as part of its payload

Spaceport Cornwall (pictured in an artist's impression) is the first such hub in the UK to enter service

Spaceport Cornwall (pictured in an artist’s impression) is the first such hub in the UK to enter service

Britain’s first ever orbital space mission explained: MailOnline’s step-by-step guide to Virgin Orbit’s launch of its 70ft-long LauncherOne rocket from Spaceport Cornwall

By Sam Tonkin for MailOnline

Britain officially entered the space race after Cornwall hosted the first ever orbital space launch on UK soil on Monday night (January 9) — although it was a hollow achievement as Virgin Orbit’s rocket failed to reach orbit.

Want to know more about the ill-fated launch, what was supposed to be launched into orbit and whether humans could one day travel to space from Spaceport Cornwall’s Newquay Airport base? MailOnline provides a step-by-step guide of everything you need to know.

When did the launch take place?

The first ever orbital space launch on British soil took place on Monday, January 9. It happened at night, after all the commercial flights at Newquay Airport had ended.

The Virgin Orbit space plane – named Cosmic Girl – left Newquay Airport at 22:02 GMT. 

Sir Richard Branson's modified Boeing 747 took off from Spaceport Cornwall with a 70-foot-long rocket packed full of satellites

Sir Richard Branson’s modified Boeing 747 took off from Spaceport Cornwall with a 70-foot-long rocket packed full of satellites

Was it a traditional rocket launch?

No. Rather than the iconic vertical launches we’re accustomed to from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, this one was a horizontal one.

The way that works is that a modified Boeing 747, which used to be a passenger aircraft in Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic fleet, took off from Spaceport Cornwall like a normal plane would.

When it reached the desired altitude of 35,000ft just off the coast of Ireland, the co-pilot hit the ‘Big Red Button’ and a rocket attached to the plane’s belly was released over the Atlantic.

It was in freefall for four seconds, before igniting and heading south past Portugal as it made its ascent.

LauncherOne was supposed to release its payload of satellites when it reached low-Earth orbit, but an ‘anomaly’ prevented this from happening.

How long did the launch take?

The LauncherOne rocket was dropped at 23:10 GMT and the entire launch phase was supposed to last around 10 minutes. 

Cosmic Girl then return to Cornwall Spaceport at about 23:55 GMT.

LauncherOne was supposed to catapult its onboard satellites into space at 8,000 miles per hour (pictured in an artist's impression)

LauncherOne was supposed to catapult its onboard satellites into space at 8,000 miles per hour (pictured in an artist’s impression)

What was Sir Richard Branson looking to achieve with the mission?

Spaceport Cornwall’s development is expected to create around 150 jobs and allow the UK to compete in the global market for deploying small satellites into Earth orbit — an industry expected to be worth £3.9 billion by 2030 which Branson is hoping to tap into. 

He also has Virgin Galactic, which is based in the US and focused on space tourism. In 2021, Branson flew to the edge of space and back in his Virgin Galactic rocket plane — beating Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Space X’s Elon Musk in the billionaire space race. 

Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit CEO, has also previously told MailOnline that human spaceflight was ‘not currently part of the company’s plans’ for the Newquay facility. 

But he said Spaceport Cornwall could be used to send probes to Mars, Venus and the moon within the next three or four years.

‘Lunar missions and smaller craft bound for Venus and Mars could be launched [from Spaceport Cornwall] within the next three or four years,’ he added.

‘We’re not going to launch a Perseverance rover (currently being used by NASA to search for signs of ancient life on Mars ), for example, but smaller interplanetary probes that explore or carry out landing missions are a possibility.’

In 2021, Sir Richard Branson flew to the edge of space in his Virgin Galactic rocket plane ¿ beating Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Space X's Elon Musk in the billionaire space race

In 2021, Sir Richard Branson flew to the edge of space in his Virgin Galactic rocket plane — beating Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Space X’s Elon Musk in the billionaire space race

How does LauncherOne work?

The Cornwall launch involved Virgin Orbit’s carrier aircraft, a modified Boeing 747 called Cosmic Girl, and LauncherOne, a two-stage orbital launch vehicle tucked into Cosmic Girl’s belly.

Once Cosmic Girl is at a high enough altitude – around 35,000 feet – LauncherOne is unleashed.

It is angled skyward about 27° at the moment of release and freefalls for 4 seconds before the first stage engine accelerates the rocket to 8,000 miles per hour.

Once its fuel is spent, the first stage detaches. LauncherOne will be between 310 to 745 miles above the Earth when its second engine engages, kicking off a series of burns to circularise its orbit. 

As it reaches space, a hatch then pops open to expose the payload of satellites, before the nose cone is jettisoned and the second stage ejects the satellites into low-Earth orbit.

Has Britain ever launched a rocket before?

Well technically, but it was 50 years ago. And it didn’t happen in the UK.   

In 1971, a British-made rocket called Black Arrow reached space after blasting off from Australia. 

Developed during the 1960s, the satellite carrier was used for four launches between 1969 and 1971, but it was its final flight which was the first and only successful orbital launch conducted by the UK.

The first and third failed, while the second was a suborbital test. No UK built rocket has been launched to space since, and never has one blasted off from British soil.

That is despite the fact that Britain is known for its expertise in manufacturing satellites.

Until now, the country lacked a way of getting its own hardware into space, but Virgin Orbit’s Spaceport Cornwall could provide a massive jolt in the arm to the UK’s satellite sector.

What’s next for Spaceport Cornwall?

Once the cause of this failure has been established, the site is targeting two unmanned commercial space flights a year from this year. However, it has a licence for up to 12. 

Virgin Orbit, which has performed three commercial flights in the US, wants Cornwall to be its first base outside America.

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HOW VIRGIN ORBIT GETS SATELLITES INTO SPACE 

TAKE OFF Cosmic Girl, an adapted Boeing 747, takes off from an air and space port, initially in California.

ROCKET DEPLOYMENT  At cruising altitude around 35,000 feet, the chief pilot hits the Big Red Button that releases the rocket from the pylon. 

FIRST STAGE BURN After a 4-second freefall, the first stage engine, NewtonThree, bursts to life, accelerating the rocket to more than 8,000 miles per hour. Once its fuel is spent, the first stage detaches.

FAIRING SEPARATION With LauncherOne now between 310 to 745 miles above the Earth’s surface, the fairing pops open, exposing the payload as it nears its destination. 

SATELLITE DEPLOYMENT Finally, with very precise timing, the second stage ejects the satellite into its final orbit. 

RETURN TO EARTH Atmospheric drag will eventually pull the second stage back down to Earth, where it burns up in the atmosphere, minimising environmental footprint.

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Sam Tonkin

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