Virgin Orbit fails on first rocket launch attempt

Daniel Fowler
May 26, 2020

In a statement, Virgin Orbit said it could confirm a "clean release from the aircraft".

The 70-foot (21-meter) Virgin Orbit rocket, named LauncherOne, does not take off from a vertical lift off, but rather is strapped to the underside of a wing on a converted Boeing 747 named Cosmic Girl.

"The mission terminated shortly into the flight".

"After being released from the carrier aircraft, the LauncherOne rocket successfully lighted its booster engine on cue - the first time the company had attempted an in-air ignition", Virgin Orbit said via a spokesperson about today's mission. "Cosmic Girl and our flight crew are safe and returning to base", Virgin Orbit's Twitter account reported as the test was underway off the coast of California.

The company confirmed Monday that the rocket's debut flight over the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Southern California was unsuccessful. Still, Virgin Orbit's CEO Dan Hart and VP Will Pomerantz cautioned that many first test missions for new launch systems don't go quite as planned - which is why you test, after all.

For this test flight, LauncherOne is carrying a dummy payload that will be sent into a low orbit to ensure it falls back to Earth quickly and burns up in the atmosphere, Virgin Orbit Vice President Will Pomerantz told reporters in a press conference Saturday.

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The rocket, an air-propelled vehicle called LauncherOne, was required to make its first test run over the Pacific Ocean during a four-hour window that opened at 10 a.m. PDT (1 p.m. EDT/1700 GMT).

For those reasons, the US military is particularly interested in what Virgin Orbit and its launch services subsidiary, VOX Space, have to offer.

The time is right for the small satellite launch market, Hart said on Saturday.

Last month, VOX Space won a $35 million contract from the Space Force to launch 44 small satellites into orbit with three launches. Internationally, it is working on plans for launches from the United Kingdom and Japan. For satellites the method is currently in use by what is now Northrop Grumman's Pegasus rocket program, which has had several dozen launches since 1990.

The disappointing launch for Virgin Orbit comes just days after Branson offloaded around $41 million of shares in sister company Virgin Galactic, founded to carry passengers on suborbital flights into the lower reaches of space, in efforts to claw back money to pump into his struggling airline.

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