Gone in 9 seconds: Virgin Orbit's maiden rocket flight went perfectly until it didn't

'Something malfunctioned' as timer was about to hit double digits


Wannabe satellite flinger Virgin Orbit has shared more detail on what went wrong and right in the very brief maiden flight of LauncherOne.

LauncherOne is an intriguing beast, consisting of a rocket slung beneath the wing of one of Virgin Orbit boss Richard Branson's old Boeing 747s. Dropped from around 35,000 feet, the two-stage rocket is, in theory, capable of delivering up to 500kg into orbit.

Virgin Orbit is not the only air-launched game in town. Northrop Grumman's Pegasus XL, dropped from an elderly Lockheed L-1011 TriStar, has an enviable track record. However, while the Pegasus is a solid-powered beast, LauncherOne is liquid-fuelled.

Another bonus of air launches is that Virgin Orbit can dispense with the pesky ground infrastructure needed by traditional vertical launchers as well as a chunk of the weather problems that so often bedevil ground-based operators.

However, for all the benefits of dropping a rocket from a 747, the process is also tricky. This is something that Virgin Orbit discovered on Monday after a day's delay to deal with some sensor issues.

The company revealed just how rapidly things went south in a post detailing what it had learned so far from its first crack at powered flight.

The good news is that everything went to plan, up until it didn't. Having got to the drop point, LauncherOne was released from Cosmic Girl, Virgin Orbit's repurposed Boeing 747, in a controlled fashion. The ignition sequence went ahead as planned and, for the initial seconds of powered flight, all went well.

Data from a multitude of sensors was slurped by the company's systems as the mission proceeded, demonstrating that an air-launched, liquid-fuelled, orbital-class rocket could work. For about nine seconds.

"About 9 seconds after drop, something malfunctioned," the company explained. The first-stage engine shut down and the mission was, for want of a better word, terminated as the borked booster plummeted to the ocean.

At least it didn't explode.

Putting a brave face on things, Virgin Orbit ticked off the things it did manage to do: demonstrate LauncherOne in controlled, if brief, flight. It also proved its infrastructure worked and, perhaps more importantly, showed that the autonomous flight safety system was capable of detecting when it was in the correct flight corridor.

With the guidance systems also now shown to have worked (for the first few seconds at least) the company is poring over the data to work out what made that first-stage engine choke.

Before the truncated flight, Virgin Orbit had planned its first operational mission in a matter of months. Instead, another demo launch will be needed replete with the necessary tweaks (hardware or otherwise).

The company remained tight-lipped about just when that launch might take place. ®


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