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MIT Technology Review

Virgin Orbit’s rocket has failed on its first attempt to get into space

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Virgin Orbit launcherVirgin Orbit launcher

The news: Virgin Orbit failed in the first test of its LauncherOne rocket yesterday, after seven years of development and testing. The rocket was transported by a Boeing 747 and released over the Pacific Ocean, off the coast of California. It was supposed to fall for a few seconds, ignite, and then propel itself into low Earth orbit. Instead, it ignited and fell into the sea. The flight had been intended to gather data rather than to actually launch a satellite into space. The crew on board the plane, and a second safety plane, safely returned to the Mojave Air & Space Port.  

What happened? On Twitter, the company blamed the crash on “an anomaly” in the first stage flight, promising that “we’ll learn more as our engineers analyze the mountain of data we collected today.” Before the test flight Virgin Orbit’s vice president for special projects, Will Pomerantz, said that there was only a 50-50 chance of success. “History is not terribly kind, necessarily, to maiden flights,” he said. The rocket had previously been dropped from the plane (as in the picture above from July 2019), but this was the first time it was ignited.

What’s next: As Pomerantz said, it is not unusual for maiden flights to fail. It’s not immediately obvious what effect the setback will have on Virgin Orbit. The company has said it is analyzing what went wrong and is “eager” to get onto its next test flight as soon as possible, with rockets in reserve. Pomerantz was upbeat about the company’s chances, saying that the fact the engine had ignited as expected meant it had successfully overcome the “single biggest technical risk.”