LauncherOne suffered an “anomaly” and failed to reach orbit after it was blasted into space during a historic launch from mainland Britain.
LauncherOne, carrying nine satellites deployed in low Earth orbit, is launched toward the stars from approximately 35,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, carried into the sky by a modified jumbo jet called Cosmic Girl.
But shortly after, launch operator Virgin Orbit said: “We appear to have encountered an anomaly that prevents us from reaching orbit. We are evaluating this information.”
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The ex-Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747 took off from Spaceport Cornwall at Newquay Airport just after 10pm on Monday, to the cheers and applause of the 2,000 members of the public who were lucky enough to snag tickets.
Sky News science reporter Thomas Moore said that while the rocket did appear to have successfully reached space, “at the last minute, the actual deployment of the satellites did not seem to be working”.
Cosmic Girl has successfully returned to Spaceport Cornwall.
It departed Newquay shortly after 10pm and arrived at LauncherOne’s touchdown point – the 21-metre rocket under its left wing – just before 11.15pm.
The plane landed on England’s southwest coast less than two hours after take-off.
LauncherOne was scheduled to reach the other side of the world, ready to launch its satellite in an hour or so.
Despite news that LauncherOne was having trouble, the hundreds of members of the public watching at the spaceport welcomed Cosmic Girls with thunderous applause.
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What kind of satellites are being deployed?
Unlike the massive satellites that NASA and SpaceX launch into space on vertical rockets, Virgin Orbit — the operator of Monday’s “Start Me” mission — deals with much smaller pieces of hardware.
The newly launched satellites are about the size of a cereal box and will carry out a range of space missions, such as ocean research, detecting illegal fishing and piracy, and national security.
They are also used in climate change observations.
Slowly but surely, Earth’s low orbit is becoming more crowded, with companies ranging from Amazon to British satellite company Iridium.
The same goes for Elon Musk’s satellite broadband company, Starlink.