Uan attempt to launch the first rocket into space from British soil ended in failure on the night of Monday 9 to Tuesday 10, an “anomaly” having prevented its launch into orbit. “It seems that we have an anomaly which prevents us from reaching orbit”, tweeted Virgin Orbit, the company organizing this mission which was to catapult the United Kingdom into the “exclusive” club of countries capable of sending spacecraft.

“The historic first attempt to launch satellites from British soil reached space late last night, but ultimately failed to reach its target orbit,” said the consortium that brings together Virgin Orbit, l. ‘British Space Agency and the Cornish Spaceport.

The Virgin Orbit Boeing 747 carrying the 21-meter rocket took off at 10:02 p.m. Monday evening (11:02 p.m. France) from Spaceport in Cornwall, a consortium that includes Virgin Orbit and the British Space Agency, at the Newquay Airport in the South West of England. The purpose of the mission was to launch into space nine satellites, which would have been a great first in the UK. The rocket then separated from the plane and its engines ignited at a height of 35,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, south of Ireland, at approximately 11:15 p.m. (12:15 a.m., France). But the “anomaly” of an unspecified nature prevented it from reaching the desired orbit.

Hundreds of people attended the departure of the mission, baptized « Start Me Up » in reference to the Rolling Stones hit, and provided by British billionaire Richard Branson’s company Virgin Orbit, which specializes in space launches for small satellites. If successful, the UK would have become the ninth country in the world to be able to put satellites into orbit.

A very closed club

“Joining this very exclusive club of launch countries is so important, because it gives us our own access to space, this sovereign access to space that we have never had before in the United Kingdom”, underlined before the launch on the BBC Melissa Thorpe, director of Spaceport Cornwall. She recalled that Europe had lost its access to the Russian Soyuz launcher since the invasion of Ukraine, compromising its access to space.

“We will work tirelessly to understand the nature of the failure, take corrective action, and return to orbit as soon as we complete a full investigation,” said Dan Hart, president of Virgin Orbit.

For Matt Archer, director of commercial spaceflight at theBritish Space Agency, despite a “disappointing” result, the project did “create a horizontal launch capability.” “We remain committed to becoming the leading provider of small commercial satellite launch services in Europe by 2030, with vertical launches planned from Scotland,” he said. For the Deputy Director General of the British Space Agency, Ian Annett, this experience shows “how difficult it is” to get into orbit, but he has already mentioned other launches in the next 12 months. “We get up, we go back, we try again, that’s what defines us,” he told the BBC.

“We have inspired millions of people, and we will continue to seek to inspire others. […] Yes, space is tough, but we’re just getting started,” said Melissa Thorpe, director of Spaceport Cornwall.

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Using a plane, a much cheaper option

The 21-meter rocket, dubbed LauncherOnewas attached under the wing of a modified Boeing 747 called « Cosmic Girl ». Once the correct altitude was reached, the plane released the rocket which then started its own engine to propel itself. The aircraft then returned to Spaceport Cornwall. Launching a rocket from an airplane is easier than a vertical takeoff, because theoretically a simple airstrip is enough, instead of an expensive space launch pad.

In the past, Virgin Orbit, which offers a fast and adaptable space launch service for satellites between 300 and 500 kg, has already put other rockets launched from aircraft into orbit. Founded in 2017 by Richard Bransonthe company had succeeded for the first time in January 2021 in putting a rocket into space via this method, from a Boeing 747 that left the Californian desert.

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For the UK launch, nine satellites were to be put into orbit with varying purposes, “from Earth observation and monitoring illegal fishing to building satellites and products to manufacture them in space”. , explained Melissa Thorpe. Until now, British satellites have to be launched into space from abroad, but the country is seeking to support its aerospace industry after its role in European projects was called into question by Brexit.

In addition to the Spaceport in Cornwall, the United Kingdom wants to open a space base in Sutherland, in the north of Scotland, and another on an island in Shetland. According to a statement from the Scottish government in early January, launches are planned from these two bases “in the coming months”.

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