Second stage engine malfunction blamed for UK space launch failure

Second stage engine malfunction blamed for UK space launch failure
Mothership Cosmic Girl with LauncherOne
Mothership Cosmic Girl with LauncherOne
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Mothership Cosmic Girl with LauncherOne
Mothership Cosmic Girl with LauncherOne

The mystery of why the first orbital mission launched from the UK fell into the sea on January 9 had some light shed on it today as Virgin Orbital announced that telemetry indicated that the second stage engine shut down prematurely.

Virgin Orbit's Start Me Up mission was supposed to be an historic event, with the UK returning to the space launch business after half a century and marking the first such launch from British soil. However, things suddenly took an unexpected turn for the worse.

At first, the mission seemed to go off swimmingly as the converted 747-400 airliner, Cosmic Girl, took off from Spaceport Cornwall in the west of England and flew out over the Atlantic Ocean to drop the LauncherOne rocket with its payload of nine small satellites. The first-stage firing and separation went as planned as the rocket reached hypersonic speed in the upper atmosphere, but then something went wrong.

What was happening wasn't immediately evident as the telemetry feed switched from one ground station to another, causing the public tally of speed and altitude to suddenly jump back and forth. Then, as Start Me Up reached an altitude of 112 miles (180 km), the second-stage engine shut down prematurely, preventing the craft from reaching orbit and sending it to burn up in the Earth's atmosphere somewhere along the rocket's north/south safety corridor over the South Atlantic.

According to Virgin Orbit, the large amounts of telemetry data allowed engineers to narrow down the location of the failure, but the cause is still under investigation by a formal review board that is led by aerospace veteran Jim Sponnick and Principal Investigator Chad Foerster, Virgin Orbit’s Chief Engineer and Vice President of Technology Development.

"We are all disappointed that we were not able to achieve full mission success and provide the launch service that our customers deserve." said Dan Hart, CEO of Virgin Orbit. "Upon identifying the anomaly, our team immediately moved into a pre-planned investigation mode. Given our four previous successful missions, which have proven our technology, our team’s deep understanding of the LauncherOne system from massive amounts of previously collected flight data, and the ample telemetry data that was collected characterizing the flight and the anomaly, I am confident that root cause and corrective actions will be determined in an efficient and timely manner. We are continuing to process and test our next vehicle per our plan and will implement any required modifications prior to our next launch.

"I also want to express my heartfelt appreciation to our team, who worked tirelessly under high pressure and difficult conditions, and most importantly to our customers, supporters, and partners in the UK, the US, and across the world. We thank you for the many expressions of confidence and support we have received over the past two days."

Source: Virgin Orbit

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