Virgin Orbit: Premature shutdown behind rocket launch fail

LONDON (AP) — Virgin Orbit said Thursday its first attempt to launch satellites into orbit from the U.K. failed after its rocket’s upper stage prematurely shut down.

The U.S.-based company used a modified Boeing 747 plane to carry one of its rockets from Cornwall in southwestern England over the Atlantic Ocean on Monday. The plane released the rocket, which carried nine small satellites, but the rocket failed to reach orbit.

In a statement Thursday, Virgin Orbit said initial data indicated that the first stage of the rocket performed as expected. It said the rocket reached space altitudes, and that stage separation and ignition of the upper stage occurred in line with the mission plan.

But it said that later in the mission, at an altitude of approximately 180 kilometers (112 miles), “the upper stage experienced an anomaly. This anomaly prematurely ended the first burn of the upper stage,” the company said.

The plane, piloted by a Royal Air Force pilot, returned to Cornwall. The rocket components and the satellites were destroyed.

The launch failure was a disappointment to the company and U.K. space officials, who had high hopes that the mission — the first such one to be attempted from Europe — would be the beginning of more commercial space launch ventures.

Virgin Orbit, which was founded by British billionaire Richard Branson in 2017, began commercial launching services in 2021. It had previously successfully completed four similar launches from California, carrying payloads for businesses and governmental agencies into orbit.

The company has launched an investigation into the source of the second stage failure on Monday. It said it plans to carry out its next mission from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, and that it is in talks with officials and businesses to return to the U.K. for another potential launch “as soon as later this year.”

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