UK Space Industry – Failure to Launch

An image of a rocket launch
Adaora Elliott

The Virgin Orbit ‘Start Me Up’ Mission consisted of the Cosmic Girl, a modified Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747, being used as a launching mechanism for the LauncherOne rocket. It had its seats removed, its upper deck converted into a control centre for launch engineers, and a LauncherOne Rocket fitted under its left wing. Adaora Elliott discusses how the UK’s first attempt to send a rocket into space was a failure and what exactly went wrong… 

After the Cosmic Girl took off from Spaceport Cornwall, it flew over the Atlantic Ocean, and released the rocket continuing on into Earth’s orbit, going through various stages to try and reach a higher target orbit. It was set to launch vertically rather than horizontally, hence the use of the plane, as this was thought to be a more dependable method of launching.

it was less weather dependent, which was  important for a UK launch, and required less ground infrastructure. Cosmic Girl was eventually set to launch at 22:16 Monday 9th January after some delays but as the night passed, the Cosmic Girl ended up being a Cosmic Fail.

Its official aim was to launch seven satellites into space, with a variety of missions such as preventing terrorism and illegal activities and reducing our environmental impact. But more than that its aim was to make history as the first space launch to be end-to-end serviced by the UK. 

Small commercial satellites could be conceptualised and designed, manufactured, tested and launched all in the UK. The United Kingdom was hoping to raise its profile globally, becoming a big player in the space race and a leading space nation. And it certainly made some headway but there will be a lot of space for improvement in the next year alone. 

The CAA (Civil Aviation Authority??) has issued nearly 150 satellite licences since it became the UK’s first space regulator in July 2021, including the one issued to the Start Me Up Mission in November 2022. The UK has only ever completed one orbital launch before, Black Arrow in 1971, which took off in Australia, so to be able to successfully launch from the UK would have been monumental.

it was certainly a disappointment and did put a dampener on the UK’s plans to seriously join the global space race.

Cornwall was chosen as a launch site because it was the perfect mix of active businesses, research centres and facilities, close to good transport infrastructure but also far enough away from densely populated areas in case of a mission failure.  The failure of the launch saw the failure of many firsts, not just the first UK Launch but the first international Virgin Orbit launch, the first commercial launch from Western Europe, the first satellite built in Wales, the ForgeStar-0, and the launch of the first satellite from Oman.

The failure occured during the firing of the rocket’s second-stage engine when it was travelling at a speed of around 11,000 miles per hour. The system experienced an anomaly and ended the mission prematurely, causing the Rocket to fall, likely over the Ocean and was likely to burn up and break apart upon re-entry. 

The exact reasoning for this is still under investigation but one of the main possibilities right now is that the rocket failed to reach the 17,000 miles per hour speed that was needed to get to the correct altitude. It has been argued that the reason behind why the rocket slowed down was possibly due to the fact that the rocket’s casing did not fall away as it was supposed to or because the rocket’s engine only burnt for one minute instead of three. 

The mission failure was not an unmitigated fiery disaster like other space launch failures that we are familiar with from NASA, SpaceX and Hollywood movie disasters. It was able to launch and reach space after all, and this result was not even entirely unexpected either as there was a 27% chance of failure on this particular mission. However, it is still safe to say that it was certainly a disappointment and did put a dampener on the UK’s plans to seriously join the global space race.

“Yes, space is hard, but we are only just getting started.”

This isn’t the end for the UK’s ambitions in space.  This particular mission was made possible by a collaboration between the UKSA (UK Space Agency), the CAA, the FAA (USA’s Federal Aviation Administration), Virgin Orbit, the National Reconnaissance Office, the Royal Air Force and the US Department of Defense. 

The mission may have been a failure but all of those relationships still exist and we are now in a place where processes can be replicated and adapted to produce successful results. UKSA and Spaceport Cornwall both claim that they would like to try the launch again within the year and Cornwall won’t be the only one racing for a successful UK launch. 

Matt Archer, Director of Commercial Spaceflight at UKSA, still believes that the UK can become a leading provider of commercial small satellite launches in Europe and has plans to do a more traditional vertical launch such as at Saxa Vord Spaceport which has plans on Unst, in the Shetland Islands and by rocket-manufacturer Orbex in Sutherland, along with four other UK spaceports that have been developed. 

The drive to launch the UK into space is very much still alive, and we can see that the effort put into the launch demonstrates that a successful UK space launch is possible and as the head of Spaceport Cornwall, Melissa Thorpe, quotes, “Yes, space is hard, but we are only just getting started.”

Adaora Elliott 

Featured image courtesy of SpaceX via Unsplash. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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