At a time when it seems more and more public and private companies are successfully reaching space, the failure of Virgin Orbit seems to be something of a rarity. It has seen the company’s value match the downward trajectory of the launcher’s payload, but how important is the failed launch?
Why did Virgin Orbit’s launch fail?
Currently, no one knows exactly what happened. The initial stages of the mission took place successfully, with the rocket successfully launching from the converted 747, Cosmic Girl. The two-stage Launcher One rocket completed the first of two burns, but the second stage of the rocket appears to have failed, and by the end of its burn was not at the required attitude for orbit.
The Virgin Orbit team will now be sifting through data, and may even hope to retrieve the rocket, although its launch over the Atlantic means that is unlikely. Until there is a clear indication of why the launch failed, it may be impossible to determine the exact effect this will have on the UK’s nascent space-launch capacity.
The importance of the launch, and what next?
In many ways, a satellite launch is unremarkable. Humans have been sending things into orbit since 1957. However, there are still relatively few countries and organisations that have the capacity to send things into space, and this was the first attempt to launch from the UK.
While the relatively small number of launch sites, and launches, was not a problem for a long time, more recently the capacity has become an issue. The increased commercialisation of space has increased demand, while events like the Russian invasion of Ukraine has highlighted the risks of limited launch options.
It was also seen as important for the UK economy. Despite having no launch sites, the UK has been a key player in the space tech sector. Its aerospace sector is the world’s second largest, and it has a long history of building everything from components to entire satellites. Having its own launch capability would have helped the country’s space sector grow at a time it has lost access to the European Space Agency’s EU-funded projects.
Of course, while a failure might seem exceptional at a time when commercial launches are becoming routine in the US, such setbacks are seen as a risk of spaceflight. The Virgin Orbit system has successfully launched from the US on four previous occasions, suggesting the issue, while catastrophic, does not mean the entire system is flawed. While it is not an outcome anyone would have wanted, Virgin Orbit — and their partners — will now see their mission as learning what went wrong and preparing for their next attempt at a UK launch.