Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit on Monday failed in its first test-launch of a new rocket carried aloft by a Boeing 747 and released over the Pacific Ocean off the coast of southern California.
The inaugural launch had appeared to be going well until moments after the rocket was dropped from beneath the left wing of the jumbo jet Cosmic Girl.
“We’ve confirmed a clean release from the aircraft. However, the mission terminated shortly into the flight. Cosmic Girl and our flight crew are safe and returning to base,” Virgin Orbit wrote on Twitter.
Photo: EPA-EFE / Virgin Orbit
There was no immediate word on what went wrong with the rocket, which carried a test satellite.
Virgin Orbit vice president for special projects Will Pomerantz on Saturday said in a preflight briefing that about half of first rocket launches fail.
“History is not terribly kind, necessarily, to maiden flights,” he said.
Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said at the briefing that there had been numerous tests, discussions and introspection to verify that the system was ready.
“In the end, the questions are always: ‘Has everything been thought about’ and ‘Are there any gaps or seams?’ and those are the questions you only learn when you commit to flight,” Hart said.
The highly modified jumbo jet took off from Mojave Air and Space Port in the desert north of Los Angeles and flew out just beyond the Channel Islands, where the drop occurred.
The rocket was supposed to fall for a few seconds before the first of its two stages ignited and hurtled it down the coast toward the South Pole for insertion of its demonstration payload into a low Earth orbit.
The purpose of the flight was to gather data on every step of the launch process rather than to have a useful satellite in orbit; the demonstration payload was described as an inert mass and the intended orbit was very low to avoid contributing to a growing problem of debris in space.
The attempt followed five years of development of the 21.3m-long LauncherOne rocket. How long the setback will affect the company was not immediately clear. It has six additional rockets under construction at its factory.
“The team’s already hard at work digging into the data, and we’re eager to hop into our next big test ASAP,” Virgin Orbit wrote on Twitter on Monday.
“Thankfully, instead of waiting until after our 1st flight to tackle our 2nd rocket, we’ve already completed a ton of work to get us back in the air and keep moving forward,” it added.
A successful launch would have marked a dramatic step in getting back on track after the COVID-19 pandemic sent most employees home earlier this year while work spaces, procedures and mission control were adjusted.
Virgin Orbit is targeting the market for launching satellites ranging in size from toasters to household refrigerators.
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