Virgin Orbit says problem with rocket’s second stage led to mission failure

by Ana Lopez

Virgin Orbit, the unconventional rocket company founded by billionaire Sir Richard Branson, said earlier this week that the mission’s failure was due to an anomaly with the rocket’s second stage.

Although the LauncherOne rocket managed to reach space and achieve phase separation, the anomaly prematurely ended the first burn of the upper stage engines, at an altitude of about 180 kilometers, Virgin said in a statement. Because of this engine drift, both the rocket components and payload fell back to Earth and were destroyed upon reentry.

The mission payload consisted of nine small satellites, including two CubeSats for the UK Ministry of Defence, a first test satellite from Space Forge, a space production start-up in Wales, and what would have been Oman’s first Earth observation satellite.

Virgin Orbit engineers and board members have already begun an analysis of the mission’s telemetry data to determine the cause of the anomaly. The company added that a formal investigation into the cause of the failure will be led by Jim Sponnick, former VP for the Atlas and Delta launch system programs at United Launch Alliance, and Virgin Orbit’s chief engineer Chad Foerster.

The company said the investigation will be complete and corrective actions will be taken before LaucherOne’s next flight from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port. But how long that will take, and when we’ll see Virgin’s Boeing 747 and missile system back in the air, is far from clear. Virgin said it was in talks with the UK government to carry out another launch from the country’s new Space Port in Cornwall for “as soon as later this year”.

That level of uncertainty is never good for a publicly traded company, but it’s likely to be especially burdensome for Virgin Orbit, which faces dwindling cash reserves and an urgent need to ramp up its launch cadence to boost revenue. As of September 30, the company had $71 million in cash; by the end of the year, Virgin received a $25 million injection from Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and $20 million from Virgin Investments Ltd. But these funds will do little but delay the inevitable if Virgin doesn’t return to launch soon.

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