Britain’s first satellite launch attempt fails, dealing blow to aerospace industry

Repurposed Virgin Atlantic jet carrying a rocket launcher
A repurposed Virgin Atlantic jet carries Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket as it takes off from Spaceport Cornwall in southwestern England.
(Ben Birchall / Press Assn.)

British officials and space scientists said Tuesday they were disappointed but not deterred after the first attempt to launch satellites into orbit from the U.K. ended in failure.

U.S.-based Virgin Orbit attempted its first international launch late Monday, using a modified jumbo jet to carry one of its rockets from Cornwall in southwestern England over the Atlantic Ocean.

The plane released the rocket, which carried nine small satellites for a mix of civilian and domestic uses. But about two hours after the plane took off, the company reported “an anomaly that has prevented us from reaching orbit.”


The plane, piloted by a Royal Air Force pilot, returned to Cornwall. The rocket and satellites were destroyed.

“We’re feeling awful, to be honest — I’m not going to lie,” Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall. said.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve been knocked. This is the biggest, definitely, but I feel OK, and we’ll get up and we’ll go again,” she said.

The space agency is aiming to send four astronauts around the moon on the next flight, in 2024, and land humans on the lunar surface as early as 2025.

Nov. 16, 2022

Virgin Orbit, which was founded by British transport and telecommunications tycoon Richard Branson, previously completed four similar launches from California.

Hundreds of people who gathered for the Cornwall launch cheered when the repurposed Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747, named Cosmic Girl, took off late Monday. Around an hour into the flight, the plane released the rocket at around 35,000 feet over the Atlantic, south of Ireland.


Virgin Orbit chief executive Dan Hart said “a technical failure appears to have prevented us from delivering the final orbit.”

“While we are very proud of the many things that we have successfully achieved as part of this mission, we are mindful that we failed to provide our customers with the launch service they deserve,” he said.

The launch of a New Shepard rocket is aborted about a minute into its flight after it apparently suffered an engine problem and veered off course.

Sept. 12, 2022

The mission was a collaboration between the U.K. Space Agency, the Royal Air Force, Virgin Orbit and Cornwall Council.

Britain hopes to become a major player in making and launching satellites and is building a spaceport in the Shetland Islands, north of Scotland, as well as the one in Cornwall.

British Business Secretary Grant Shapps said Monday’s launch was “a big moment” despite its failure.

“Space is difficult,” Shapps told Sky News.

“It didn’t work. I’ve no doubt that they’ll pick themselves up, dust themselves off and they’ll go again once they find out what exactly went wrong with it,” he said.