Virgin Orbit failed in its first attempt at launching a rocket into orbit from the wing of a modified Boeing 747-400 owing to an “anomaly”, but the company says it is pressing ahead with further tests.
The California-based company, part of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, conducted the maiden test launch on the morning of 25 May. It successfully completed all pre-launch procedures, as well as the carry flight to the drop site over the Pacific Ocean.
Virgin says that after a successful clean release from the 747, the 21m (68ft)-long LauncherOne rocket “successfully lighted its booster engine on cue” - its first successful in-air ignition attempt.
However, minutes later, Virgin Orbit says “an anomaly…occurred early in the first-stage flight, and the mission safely terminated”.
The 747 and its crew landed back at Mojave Air and Space Port, the flight’s point of origin. FlightRadar24 indicates the aircraft flew for about 90min before the mission was terminated.
Virgin Orbit does not provide further details on what happened to the LauncherOne rocket, except to say that it “accomplished many of the goals we set for ourselves, though not as many as we would have liked”.
Virgin Orbit chief executive Dan Hart adds: “Our engineers are already poring through the data. Our next rocket is waiting. We will learn, adjust, and begin preparing for our next test, which is coming up soon.”
The company’s next rocket is in its “final stages of integration” at its Long Beach, California facility. Subsequent rockets are also in the manufacturing process.
The LauncherOne rocket — designed to put payloads of up to around 400kg (880lb) in to low-Earth orbit — is carried from take-off under the 747’s left wing and released from a steep climb.
The 747’s original-equipment fifth-engine carry point has been modified to handle the 21m-long rocket.
Sister company Virgin Atlantic provided the donor aircraft for the project; originally registered as G-VWOW, it entered service in 2001 and has since been renamed as Cosmic Girl.