Virgin Orbit blames an upper-stage anomaly for the launch failure

Virgin Orbit blames an upper-stage anomaly for the launch failure

Virgin Orbit blames an upper-stage anomaly for the launch failure

SEATTLE — Virgin Orbit says its first UK-based LauncherOne mission failed to reach orbit on January 9 when an anomaly caused the rocket’s upper stage to shut down prematurely.

In a January 12 statement, Virgin Orbit gave some new details about the failed “Start Me Up” mission from England’s Cornwall spaceport, which aimed to put nine satellites into orbit. The failure was the first for LauncherOne since its inaugural 2020 demonstration mission.

According to the company, the initial phases of the launch, including the launch of the rocket from the Boeing 747 aircraft and the burnout of the first stage, went as planned. The rocket’s second stage then separated and fired the NewtonFour engine, followed by separation of the payload fairing.

“Later in the mission, at an altitude of about 180 km, an anomaly occurred in the upper stage. This anomaly prematurely terminated the first burn of the upper stage,” the company said. The company did not disclose additional details about the anomaly.

Observers speculated that some problem with the upper stage caused the failure, although problems with the telemetry displayed during the webcast, such as false data, made it difficult to narrow down the nature of the problem or when it occurred. The company did not explain why it initially announced during launch that the upper stage had reached orbit, which it retracted nearly half an hour later.

Virgin Orbit has launched a formal investigation led by Chad Foerster, its chief engineer and vice president of technology, and Jim Sponnick, former vice president of Atlas and Delta programs at United Launch Alliance. The company did not estimate how long the investigation would take.

“Once the anomaly was identified, our team immediately went into pre-planned investigation mode,” Dan Hart, CEO of Virgin Orbit, said in a statement. Given the company’s experience with the vehicle and the “extensive telemetry data” from the flight, “I am confident that the root cause and corrective actions will be determined in an effective and timely manner.”

Virgin Orbit said LauncherOne’s return to flight will take place from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port, which has hosted all five previous missions prior to this launch. The rocket for this mission is undergoing final integration and validation.

The company said it expects to return to Spaceport Cornwall for future launches “and is in active talks with key UK government and commercial stakeholders to begin planning mission opportunities later this year.” Hart at the January 8 pre-launch briefing outlined a similar schedule, but with caveats. “I’m not sure if that will happen, but it’s not out of the question,” he said at the time of LauncherOne’s second Cornwall mission before the end of the year.

A quick and successful return to flight is critical for Virgin Orbit, which was already losing a significant amount of money before the failure as it struggled to increase the pace of launches. The company ended its fiscal third quarter with $71 million in cash and negative free cash flow of $52.5 million, although the company has since raised $45 million in two separate tranches from Virgin Group and its investment arm.

Virgin Orbit shares fell 14% on the Nasdaq on January 10, the first day after the failure, but rebounded slightly on January 11. The company’s shares are still near their lowest level since going public just over a year ago in the SPAC merger.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *