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Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket misses going to space during its first air launch

Alan Boyle
Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket fires its booster engine after its release from the Cosmic Girl carrier airplane. (Virgin Orbit Photo)

A new breed of launch vehicle had a shaky first outing today when Virgin Orbit released its LauncherOne rocket from a modified Boeing 747 jumbo jet flying over the Pacific Ocean for its first blastoff.

“We’ve confirmed a clean release from the aircraft,” Virgin Orbit reported in a tweet. “However, the mission terminated shortly into the flight.”

In a follow-up Twitter thread, Virgin Orbit said the rocket maintained its stability after release and fired up its first-stage engine. “An anomaly then occurred early in first-stage flight,” the company said.

The carrier airplane, known as Cosmic Girl, and its crew landed safely back at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port after the test. “We’ll learn more as our engineers analyze the mountain of data we collected today,” Virgin Orbit said.

The two-stage LauncherOne rocket is theoretically capable of sending payloads weighing up to 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) into low Earth orbit. Today’s test payload was designed to collect data about the rocket’s performance and beam those readings back to Earth, potentially all the way up into orbit.

Virgin Orbit’s technology builds on the air-launch legacy of SpaceShipOne, the rocket plane that won the $10 million Ansari X Prize back in 2004 with financial support from the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

There’s another connection to Seattle’s aerospace heritage: Before becoming Virgin Orbit’s CEO, Dan Hart spent more than three decades at Boeing, working on space systems ranging from satellite programs to NASA’s space shuttles.

“We accomplished many of the goals we set for ourselves, though not as many as we would have liked,” Hart.said in a news release. “Nevertheless, we took a big step forward today.  Our engineers are already poring through the data. Our next rocket is waiting. We will learn, adjust, and begin preparing for our next test, which is coming up soon.”

Today’s test mission came after years of development, stretching back to British billionaire Richard Branson’s licensing of the air-launch technology from Allen and Mojave-based Scaled Composites.

At first, the LauncherOne project was part of Virgin Galactic, which has focused on a piloted rocket plane called SpaceShipTwo. Virgin Orbit was spun off from Virgin Galactic in 2017 — and while Virgin Galactic became its own publicly traded company last year, Virgin Orbit has remained under the wing of the Virgin Group.

Air-launch systems can provide more versatility for space missions, since the carrier airplane can be based at any airport that has a runway long enough for takeoff. Also, the airplane can adjust its flight path to fly around troublesome weather systems, and launch payloads into any inclination.

For those reasons, the U.S. military is particularly interested in what Virgin Orbit and its launch services subsidiary, VOX Space, have to offer. Last month, VOX Space won a $35 million contract from the Space Force to launch 44 small satellites into orbit with three launches.

LauncherOne makes use of a new line of liquid-fueled rocket engines known as the Newton. A dummy version of the rocket was dropped during a flight test last July, but today marked the first time that the NewtonThree and NewtonFour engines were to be put to the test during flight.

The pilots for today’s roughly 100-minute test outing were Kelly Latimer and Todd Ericson. Before joining Virgin, Latimer was an Air Force test pilot with experience at McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma, Wash., and the first female research test pilot at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in California. Ericson is also a former Air Force test pilot.

Update for 10:30 p.m. PT May 26: In a follow-up blog post, Virgin Orbit said the LauncherOne flight went “perfectly” for about nine seconds after the rocket was dropped from its carrier airplane. Then the anomaly occurred:

“About 9 seconds after drop, something malfunctioned, causing the booster stage engine to extinguish, which in turn ended the mission. We cannot yet say conclusively what the malfunction was or what caused it, but we feel confident we have sufficient data to determine that as we continue through the rigorous investigation we’ve already begun.

“With the engine extinguished, the vehicle was no longer able to maintain controlled flight — but the rocket did not explode. It stayed within the predicted downrange corridors of our projections and our Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) launch license as the vehicle fell to the ocean, posing no risk to public safety, no danger our aircrew or aircraft, and no significant environmental impact.”

The posting went on to list the test mission’s accomplishments and report that the team’s flight crew, engineers and technicians are “thoroughly dissecting the data.”

. “It’s too soon to say exactly when our next launch demo will occur,” Virgin Orbit said. “But we can confidently say that we laid the groundwork long ago for us to build on this launch demo quickly and skillfully. We’re excited to take the next step on our journey to open space for good.”

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