September 23, 2020

Virgin Orbit’s air-launched rocket fails on first test flight


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Virgin Orbit’s carrier aircraft — a Boeing 747 named “Cosmic Girl” — took off from Mojave Air and Space Port at 2:56 p.m. EDT (11:56 a.m. EDT) Monday with the company’s LauncherOne rocket under its left wing. Credit: Matt Hartman / Shorealone Films

Making its first flight, a privately-funded air-launched rocket developed and built by Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit failed to reach space Monday after release from the company’s modified 747 carrier airplane over the Pacific Ocean.

Designed to haul small satellites into orbit, Virgin Orbit’s two-stage LauncherOne suffered an “anomaly” soon after ignition of its kerosene-fed first stage engine, the company said.

“LauncherOne maintained stability after release, and we ignited our first stage engine, NewtonThree,” Virgin Orbit said. “An anomaly then occurred early in first stage flight. We’ll learn more as our engineers analyze the mountain of data we collected today.”

The rocket was carried aloft from Mojave Air and Space Port in California by the Boeing 747 mothership, named “Cosmic Girl.”

With a two-person flight crew and two launch engineers on-board, the airplane flew west from Mojave, then south over the Pacific Ocean toward the rocket’s drop point near California’s Channel Islands around 100 miles (160 kilometers) west-southwest of Long Beach.

Chief pilot Kelly Latimer, a veteran test pilot, flew the the 747 through the rocket’s drop box, then entered a race track pattern to loop back around line up for launch on a southeasterly heading.

In the final moments before release, she maneuvered the airplane to pull up at an angle of about 27.5 degrees. The launch team aboard the plane then commanded release of the 70-foot-long (21-meter) rocket from a pylon under the aircraft’s left wing at 2:50 p.m. EDT (11:50 a.m. PDT; 1850 GMT).

Virgin Orbit did not livestream Monday’s launch attempt, but the company provided near real-time updates on Twitter. After confirming release of the LauncherOne rocket, Virgin Orbit followed up three minutes later with a tweet saying the “mission terminated shortly into the flight.”

The company said the aircraft and its four-person crew were safe. The “Cosmic Girl” carrier jet landed back at Mojave at 4:26 p.m. EDT (1:26 p.m. PDT; 2026 GMT).

Virgin Orbit officials carefully set expectations before Monday’s test flight, which was the first try for the company’s LauncherOne rocket to reach Earth orbit.

“History is not terribly kind to maiden flights,” said Will Pomerantz, Virgin Orbit’s vice president of special projects, in a conference call with reporters Saturday. “Taking my best faith estimate, it’s about half of maiden (rocket) flights fail. So that’s sort of the historical odds we’re against.”

Virgin Orbit built the bulk of the rocket in-house. The rocket’s tanks, composite structures and engines were all developed by the company’s engineers.

The NewtonThree engine on LauncherOne’s first stage can generate about 73,500 pounds of thrust. The NewtonFour engine on the second stage, which is designed to ignite multiple times on a single flight, produces around 6,000 pounds of thrust.

Both engines consume kerosene and cryogenic liquid oxygen. The LauncherOne is the first air-launched orbital-class rocket to burn liquid fuel.

“This will be the first time that we’ve lit our NewtonThree booster stage engine in flight,” Pomerantz said in the pre-launch press briefing. “It’s coming after a lot of testing, but this is kind of the next big step. That moment of ignition of the NewtonThree, I would say, is the key moment in this flight. We’ll keep going as long as we can after that, potentially even all the way to orbit, but we’re really excited about the data, and about the moment of ignition, and as far as we can get after that.”

Imagery from National Weather Service radar in Los Angeles appeared to show a debris cloud in the vicinity of the LauncherOne drop zone at the time of the rocket’s release.

Virgin Orbit said Monday that teams accomplished all pre-flight milestones according to plan, including propellant loading on the ground at Mojave, takeoff and flyout over the Pacific Ocean, the terminal countdown and a clean release of LauncherOne from the aircraft.

“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,” Virgin Orbit said. “We hoped we could have done more, but we accomplished those key objectives today.”

There were no customer payloads on Monday’s test flight. The rocket carried an inert payload Virgin Orbit intended to release in orbit to test the vehicle’s satellite deployment mechanism.

“The team’s already hard at work digging into the data, and we’re eager to hop into our next big test ASAP,” Virgin Orbit said. “Thankfully, instead of waiting until after our 1st flight to tackle our 2nd rocket, we’ve already completed a ton of work to get us back in the air and keep moving forward.”

Virgin Orbit shared this picture of the company’s second flight-ready LauncherOne rocket inside the company’s factory in Long Beach, California. The company said it is ready for system-level testing. Credit: Virgin Orbit

Before the launch, Virgin Orbit officials said they would evaluate the results of the inaugural test launch before deciding whether to proceed into commercial service with LauncherOne, or perform a second test flight.

“You’d have to get into the technical discussion of what did we prove? What data did we get, and what data did we not get? And how could we augment it, if we needed to, with ground testing?” said Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit’s president and CEO, during a conference call with reporters Saturday.

“This is a test flight, so the purpose of this flight is to incrementally test the rocket and the airplane and the system as we pass through the operations,” Hart said Saturday. “So we’ll be getting data on our (propellant) load sequence, our captive carry flight out, and the full flight of the rocket after it drops through first stage flight, separation, second stage flight, and so forth.

“And we have telemetry stations around the world to capture the data as it comes down,” Hart said. “The data … is the product of that flight, and every increment that we learn, from the moment that we start fueling the rocket, to flying it out, to lighting the engines, and observing the response of the system … is a huge step in the maturation of a system.”

Engineers have performed numerous engine test-firings, stage and fairing separation tests, and propellant loading rehearsals. Virgin Orbit also last year released an inert LauncherOne rocket over a military test range at Edwards Air Force Base in California, verifying the airplane’s release mechanism.

Before the test flight, Hart said the data gathered on the first launch would anchor engineering models that have, so far, only relied on testing performed on the ground or in the atmosphere.

The debut test flight capped years of development of Virgin Orbit’s small satellite launch system. The effort began as a project of sister company Virgin Galactic, which focuses on the suborbital space tourism market.

Both companies are part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.

Virgin Galactic says it first studied the LauncherOne concept in 2007, and development began in earnest in 2012. Engineers in 2015 scrapped initial plans to drop the rocket from Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft, and kicked off development of a redesigned system using a 747 jumbo jet taken from Virgin Atlantic’s commercial airline fleet.

Headquartered in Long Beach, California, Virgin Orbit was established in 2017 as a spinoff of Virgin Galactic. The company currently has around 500 full-time employees, according to Pomerantz.

Virgin Orbit’s investors include Branson’s Virgin Group and Mubadala, Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund.

“The way you approach a milestone like this is through a number of gates and a lot of discussion,” Hart said Saturday. “And you essentially get to a point where you have looked under every rock and verified that there’s nothing more for you to do to verify that the system is ready, and that’s what we have done.”

Other companies are vying for the same slice of the launch market.

Rocket Lab, a U.S.-New Zealand company, debuted its Electron small satellite launcher in 2017. Like Virgin Orbit’s first test launch, Rocket Lab’s debut mission failed before reaching orbit, a mishap the company blamed on a malfunction in a piece of ground equipment.

Another U.S. launch company, Firefly Aerospace, aims to fly its small new Alpha rocket into orbit before the end of this year.

And there are opportunities for small satellites to launch as rideshare payloads on bigger rockets. SpaceX says it charges as little as $1 million to launch a piggyback payload of up to 440 pounds, or 200 kilograms, with a primary payload on a Falcon 9 rocket.

Hart said Virgin Orbit has initially set a launch price of about $12 million per LauncherOne flight, but that could be divided among multiple customers if their satellites are light enough.

SpaceX’s first orbital-class rocket, the now-retired Falcon 1, failed on its first four attempts to put an object into Earth orbit.

Elon Musk, SpaceX’s founder and CEO, and Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck wished Virgin Orbit well in tweets after Monday’s launch.

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Follow Stephen Clark on Twitter: @StephenClark1.


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