Virgin Orbit pledges to return for launch of new UK satellite

Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit said on Thursday it had started “active discussions” about returning to the UK later this year to make another attempt at launching satellites, despite the failed mission from the UK’s first spaceport in Cornwall on Monday.

The US-based company said the next launch of its mobile launch system would be from its home base at Mojave Air and Space Port in California after identifying and fixing the causes of the failure Monday night.

But it “also anticipates returning to Spaceport Cornwall for more launches,” Virgin Orbit said in a statement. Discussions are underway with authorities and customers about launch opportunities “as soon as later this year”.

“We are all disappointed that we have not been able to achieve full mission success and provide the launch service our customers deserve,” said Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit Chief Executive. “I am confident that the root cause and corrective actions will be identified in an efficient and timely manner.”

Virgin Orbit – in which Branson’s Virgin group has a 75 percent stake – expected the mission on Monday to prove its mobile launch system can be taken to any suitable airstrip and by nations that previously had to rely on others , quick access to space provides countries.

The system uses a converted 747 jumbo jet to launch a rocket to 35,000 feet where it is released to continue its journey into space.

Virgin Orbit, which went public through a merger with a special purpose vehicle just over a year ago, took a sharp tumble on news of the failed mission. Shares have fallen 84 percent over the past year.

The mission was also key to the UK’s bid to secure a share of the fast-growing market for commercial low-Earth orbit satellite services.

Services such as high-speed broadband and climate monitoring are increasingly being delivered from this region of space. The UK, which has six more spaceports in development, had hoped to be the first country to launch a satellite from Western Europe.

Virgin said Monday’s mission initially went as planned, with the first stage and fairing – the nose cone protecting the satellites – both separating as expected.

The rocket reached an altitude of about 110 miles (180 km) above Earth, but the engine powering the second stage containing the satellites appeared to have prematurely shut down.

“This event ended the mission, with the rocket components and payload falling back to Earth within the approved safety corridor without ever reaching orbit,” the company said.

The causes of the failure are currently being investigated. Virgin has appointed Jim Sponnick, a veteran launch engineer who has served on missions for the US Air Force supporting Nasa and commercial customers, as a co-investigator, along with its own head of technology development, Chad Foerster, to lead the investigation.

“A full failure analysis and investigation, and the completion of any necessary corrective actions identified during the investigation, will be completed before the next flight,” Virgin said. Virgin Orbit pledges to return for launch of new UK satellite

Adam Bradshaw

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