Virgin Orbit fails on debut flight

Virgin Orbit failed to launch their first rocket into orbit during its debut flight on Monday, 25 May 2020. Virgin Orbit is a small satellite company that hopes to launch rockets to space from aeroplanes.

Virgin Orbit's Cosmic Girl flying while mated with a LauncherOne. Photo by Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit's modified Boeing 747 named "Cosmic Girl" departed Mojave Air and Space Port in California at 7:56 pm UTC and headed for the launch site, located over the Pacific Ocean off the Southern Coast of California.

The aircraft cruised at 30,000 feet before pitching the nose up at an angle of about 27 degrees to launch the rocket, LauncherOne. LauncherOne is supposed to enter a 4-second free fall before the first stage engine, NewtonThree is activated, accelerating the rocket to more than 12000 kph. Once the fuel is used up, NewtonThree detaches and burns up in the atmosphere. NewtonFour would then be activated to circularise its orbit. The payload fairing opens up and the satellite becomes exposed. As the satellite nears the orbit, the satellite is ejected into final orbit and the mission is completed.

According to Virgin Orbit, the release of the rocket was successful but it developed issues of an unknown nature after igniting LauncherOne's NewtonThree engine.

In a press release, Virgin Orbit said "After being released from the carrier aircraft, the LauncherOne rocket successfully lighted its booster engine on cue. An anomaly then occurred early in first stage flight, and the mission safely terminated."

The company is reviewing the data from the first but unsuccessful launch of LauncherOne. The company's second LauncherOne has already been built and is ready to go through testing before it is ready to take to the skies.

Virgin Orbit is not the first company to launch rockets from planes. Northrop Grumman developed the rocket Pegasus, which was first launched in 1990.

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