Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit failed on Monday when it first launched a test of a new rocket transported aloft by a Boeing 747 and dropped over the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Southern California.
The inaugural launch seemed to go well until a few moments after the rocket was dropped under the left wing of the jumbo jet dubbed Cosmic Girl.
“We have confirmed a clear release of the aircraft. However, the mission ended soon after the flight. Cosmic Girl and our flight crew are safe and are returning to base, “said Virgin Orbit in its official Twitter comment on the launch.
There was no immediate word on what was wrong with the rocket, which was carrying a test satellite.
Will Pomerantz, Virgin Orbit vice president for special projects, said at a preflight briefing on Saturday that about half of the first rocket launches failed.
“The story is not terribly good with the inaugural flights,” he said.
CEO Dan Hart said during the briefing that there were numerous tests, discussions and introspection to verify that the system was ready.
“In the end, the questions are always, everything has been thought of and are there gaps or seams, and these are the questions that you learn only when you commit to flying,” said Hart.
The highly modified jumbo jet took off from Mojave Air and Space Por t in the desert north of Los Angeles and took off just beyond the Channel Islands, where the fall occurred.
The rocket was supposed to fall for a few seconds before the first of its two stages ignites and precipitates it along the coast towards the South Pole to insert its demonstration payload in a low Earth orbit.
The purpose of the flight was to collect data on each stage of the launch process rather than having a useful satellite in orbit; the demonstration payload has been described as an inert mass and the planned orbit was very low to avoid contributing to the space waste problem.
The attempt followed five years of development of the 70-foot (21.3-meter) LauncherOne rocket.
The duration of the setback to the business was not immediately clear. He has six additional rockets under construction in his factory.
“The team is already working hard to dig the data, and we look forward to participating in our next big test as soon as possible,” the company tweeted. “Fortunately, instead of waiting after our 1st flight to attack our 2nd rocket, we have already done a ton of work to get back in the air and keep moving. “
A successful launch by Virgin Orbit would have been a dramatic step in getting back on track after the coronavirus pandemic had sent most employees home earlier this year when workspaces, procedures and control mission have been adjusted.
Virgin Orbit is targeting the market for launching satellites of sizes ranging from toasters to domestic refrigerators.
Now is the time for the small satellite launch market, Hart said on Saturday.
Advances in technology have made it possible for satellites much smaller than traditional payloads to do “real work” in space, usually from a low Earth orbit, and for markets ranging from commercial to national security , did he declare.
While other companies are developing rockets for the small satellite market and large rocket manufacturers like SpaceX can transport them into orbit as part of a carpool deal with large satellites, Virgin’s air launch system Orbit based on the aviation industry’s 747 workhorse is intended to put a satellite up when and where a customer needs it, said Hart.
“We can fly into space from anywhere that can accommodate a 747, which is almost anywhere,” he said.
Virgin Orbit says it has dozens of missions on the books for customers, including the US Space Force and the Royal Air Force. Internationally, he works on launch projects in the United Kingdom and Japan.
Hart did not provide a specific monetary value for the assignments he has on the books, but called it “hundreds of millions.”
Air launch technology dates back decades, including its use by X-15 rocket planes in the 1950s and 1960s. For satellites, the method is currently used by what is now Northrop’s Pegasus rocket program. Grumman, which has had dozens of launches since 1990.
Virgin Orbit, headquartered in Long Beach, California, started as a sister company to Virgin Galactic, but has since separated. Virgin Galactic is preparing to begin flights carrying passengers in the lower reaches of space from southern New Mexico.