The UK space industry is looking for positive results after the first orbital launch from Western Europe eended in failure.
The mission seemed to get off to a smooth start. Around 10pm GMT on Monday, the Boeing 747 transport Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket has successfully launched starts in the south west of England.
The fighter jet then climbed about 35,000 feet before releasing the missile over the Atlantic Ocean. But then disaster struck.
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“It looks like we have an anomaly preventing us from going into orbit. We are evaluating the information,” Virgin Orbit announced on Twitter.
We seem to have an anomaly that prevents us from getting into orbit. We evaluate the information.
— Virgin Orbit (@VirginOrbit) January 9, 2023
The American company soon gave more details. The problem had arisen during the firing of LauncherOne’s second stage motor, while the missile was traveling at over 11,000 mph.
All nine satellites on board were lost. Among them was Amber-1, developed by the British Satellite Applications Catapult and Horizon Technologies for maritime tracking.
“We will come back stronger.
Paul Febrve, CTO at Satellite Applications Catapult, said the failure was a major setback for all involved, but a “small dent” for Britain’s space strategy.
“It’s a blow, but it’s not a crippling blow,” Febrve told TNW. “We will learn from it, come back stronger and improve the opportunities we have in the UK.”
That ability has solid foundations. As a northern latitude island, Britain has favorable geography for launching satellites in polar and sun-synchronous orbits, passing over the north and south poles.
There are several compelling reasons to exploit these strengths. One is the growing demand for digital connectivity around the world, which cannot be met by using terrestrial infrastructure alone.
Another motive has been brazenly put forward by Russia’s war in Ukraine. The invasion of February exposed the need to rapidly deploy small satellites for military intelligence, increasing the demand for launches in Europe.
The UK has pitched itself as the ideal provider of these spaceports. In addition to the favorable geography, the country is a leading satellite producer, home of many private space companies, and the first country in Europe to introduce new space laws.
Seven spaceports across Britain are now under development. They are unlikely to provide launch pads for missions to the moon, but they could provide promising sites for smaller satellites.
“This particular vehicle was carrying satellites from seven different providers, all doing different things. They were really handcrafted in terms of their purpose,” Febvre said.
“We’re really focused on responsive launch and innovation — not the scale-up aspect.”
“We remain committed to becoming the largest supplier in Europe.
Febvre found even more reason for hope, which is what has already been achieved. While Monday’s mission failed to reach its ultimate goal, it did prove space launches are feasible from British soil.
The effort will also improve domestic expertise, regulation and capabilities.
“The project has succeeded in creating a horizontal launch capability at Spaceport Cornwall, and we remain committed to becoming the leading provider of commercial small satellite launches in Europe by 2030, with vertical launches planned from Scotland,” Matt Archer, director of commercial space travel at the UK Space Agency, said in a statement.
Since the satellites were insured, their manufacturers and operators will be compensated for their loss. A bigger problem will be the reputational damage.
Space setbacks are not uncommon, but they still deter investors. Virgin Orbit must now convince critics that the failure will not be repeated. The UK, meanwhile, is already planning another launch within the next 12 months.