Virgin Orbit’s rocket failure was caused by a propulsion problem

Virgin Orbit has noted a premature extinction of the propulsion of its second stage rocket Launcher One.

The investigations are not yet complete, but Virgin Orbit is starting to have a clearer idea of ​​what happened on January 9, 2023. In a progress report, the British company delivered additional items about the flight incident that took place during the Start Me Up space mission — the first drive from British soil.

It was indeed a problem in the second part of the flight that the problem appeared: the entire first phase, from takeoff from Newquay Cornwall airport, in the south-west of England, to the release of the rocket hung under the wing of the plane, went well. The launcher’s first stage also performed well, according to telemetry from Virgin Orbit.

This one was able to reach an altitude high enough to reach space — by convention, the limit is 100 kilometers — and the handover with the second stage did not show any particular failure: the first stage separated normally and the propulsion of the second started as planned.

Virgin Orbit Launcher One
The Launcher One rocket, which is about to be hung under the wing of the plane. // Source : Virgin Orbit

Premature shutdown of propulsion

It was when the launcher, continuing its ascent, reached an altitude of 180 km that the anomaly was triggered. Its nature is still mysterious, but it had the effect of prematurely cutting off the combustion of the upper stage. As a result, the rocket no longer had enough thrust to continue accelerating and gaining height.

Unable to reach the expected orbit, the shot ended up falling back to Earth, in a secure area, without managing to drop the payload. The plane that sent the rocket from a high altitude experienced no incident and was able to return safely. Since then, an investigation has been carried out to identify the cause of this performance problem, to correct it by the next shot.

The next flight is also being prepared: it will take place from a space base in the United States this time. As for Newquay Cornwall airport, it was not the last time that it hosted a Virgin Orbit mission: the company wants to relaunch other launches from the United Kingdom by the end of the year. . With, this time, the intention of getting there.

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