Virgin Orbit’s airborne satellite-launch failure has led to an early task for the UK’s new Space Accident Investigation Authority, which will probe the incident in co-operation with the US FAA.

The launch vehicle, dropped from a Boeing 747-400 carrier off south-west Ireland on 9 January, suffered an unexpected shutdown of its second-stage engine.

This meant the vehicle and its satellite payload – the first to be launched from Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay – failed to reach its assigned orbit and instead fell back to Earth.

With the new launch capabilities being introduced in the UK, the Air Accidents Investigation Branch was designated as the Space Accident Investigation Authority in 2021.

Virgin Orbit return-c-Virgin Orbit

Source: Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit’s carrier aircraft at Spaceport Cornwall following the failed launch

“Spaceflight accident investigations will seek to improve spaceflight safety by promoting action to prevent recurrence,” the branch stated at the time. “They will not apportion blame or liability.”

Inspectors from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch had been attending the launch from Spaceport Cornwall as observers.

While the Space Accident Investigation Authority is independent of the UK Civil Aviation Authority, the regulator will act as an advisor as investigators work with the FAA to oversee Virgin Orbit’s inquiry into the launch failure. “The aim will be to ensure that any relevant safety lessons are learnt,” it adds.