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Virgin Orbit's first rocket launch attempt stopped in mid-air after unexplained 'anomaly'

Adam Smith
A completed LauncherOne rocket, shown here outside Virgin Orbit's manufacturing facility in Long Beach, California, USA: Virgin Orbit / Greg Robinson

Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit company aborted its first attempt to launch a rocket into space on Monday.

Virgin Orbit aims to provide launch services for small satellites, founded in 2017, and was attempting to launch a 70-foot (21.34 m) rocket called LauncherOne from a modified Boeing 747 aeroplane called Cosmic Girl.

However the mission – taking place from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California - was “terminated” moments after the rocket was released from Cosmic Girl.

In a post on its website, Virgin Orbit says that “an anomaly … occurred early in first stage flight, and the mission [was] safely terminated.” It is currently unclear what anomaly that was; Virgin Orbit says that all other pre-launch procedures were carried out successfully. We have reached out for clarification.

On Twitter, the company said that “LauncherOne maintained stability after release, and we ignited our first stage engine, NewtonThree. An anomaly then occurred early in first stage flight. We'll learn more as our engineers analyze the mountain of data we collected today.”

LauncherOne maintained stability after release, and we ignited our first stage engine, NewtonThree. An anomaly then occurred early in first stage flight. We'll learn more as our engineers analyze the mountain of data we collected today.

— Virgin Orbit (@Virgin_Orbit)
May 25, 2020

Over the weekend, a sensor fault postponed the launch which was set to take place on Sunday 24 May, as the company said it was acting “out of an abundance of caution” and was offloading fuel to address the issue.

“Our team performed their prelaunch and flight operations with incredible skill today. Test flights are instrumented to yield data and we now have a treasure trove of that. We accomplished many of the goals we set for ourselves, though not as many as we would have liked,” said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart in a statement.

“Nevertheless, we took a big step forward today. Our engineers are already poring through the data. Our next rocket is waiting. We will learn, adjust, and begin preparing for our next test, which is coming up soon.”


In a pre-flight briefing the day before the initial scheduled launch, Virgin Orbit’s vice-president for special projects Will Pomerantz said that approximately half of first rocket launches fail, adding “history is not terribly kind, necessarily, to maiden flights."

Such a setback does not seem to be impeding the company from its second launch, which is currently being organised from its Long Beach facility with “half-dozen other rockets for subsequent missions not far behind.”

Virgin Orbit is separate from Richard Branson’s commercial space-flight programme Virgin Galactic, which aims to provide suborbital spaceflights to space tourists and suborbital launches for space science missions. The two companies were originally interlinked, but Virgin Orbit was spun-out of Galactic in 2017 while the company's human spaceflight program suffered from multiple delays.

Recently, the UK’s first completed rocket test in 50 years also took place. Private space company Skyrora’s Skylark L rocket was launched from Scotland, with the attempt to launch orbital rockets from 2023.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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