Virgin Orbit rocket fails on first airborne test

Virgin Orbit failed to launch a rocket into orbit during its first airborne test on Monday, marking a setback in its planned move to rapid commercialisation at a time when Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is under severe financial stress.

The mission, off the coast of southern California, was the biggest test yet for the Virgin satellite launch subsidiary, which was set up as a separate company three years ago. It is targeting the booming market for small communications satellites, which has led to a wave of innovation in low-cost, small-scale rockets.

Virgin’s rocket, LauncherOne, is carried to around 35,000ft under the wing of a Boeing 747 jumbo jet. Its engine is designed to fire after the rocket has been dropped from the plane, taking it the rest of the way to orbit. Airborne launches eliminate the need for a special launch site, potentially making it possible to send payloads into orbit quickly and easily from airstrips around the world.

“We’ve confirmed a clean release from the aircraft,” Virgin Orbit said on Twitter soon after its test over the Atlantic Ocean on Monday. “However, the mission terminated shortly into the flight.” It said later that it had succeeded in igniting the rocket’s engine but that “an anomaly then occurred early in first-stage flight”.

The first full trials for new rocket systems often fail, and Virgin Orbit had lowered expectations ahead of Monday’s mission. But success would have marked a turning point for the venture and unlocked a new source of cash flow at an important time for the Virgin group.

Ahead of the test, Virgin Orbit said it hoped to “quickly pivot” to commercial operations and that its second rocket was in the final stages of being built in its manufacturing plant near Los Angeles. Its first commercial launch was scheduled to be for Nasa and a group of launch companies, mainly carrying satellites for universities in the US.

Virgin Orbit executives have said the company has signed contracts worth “hundreds of millions of dollars”.

Sir Richard’s other space venture, Virgin Galactic, has become an important source of financial liquidity at a time when his group’s airline and travel operations are under severe pressure. Galactic, which aims to carry tourists to the edge of space, has yet to fly with paying passengers. But following a reverse listing on the US stock market last year, Virgin last week cashed in a fifth of its stake for $366m.

Before Monday’s mishap, Virgin Orbit executives said that even an incomplete test could yield plenty of valuable information. They hoped to learn from a number of stages of the flight, from releasing the rocket and igniting its engines to firing the second stage and seeing it release its payload.

“As we said before the flight, our goals today were to work through the process of conducting a launch, learn as much as we could, and achieve ignition,” the company tweeted. “We hoped we could have done more, but we accomplished those key objectives today.”

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