Failed launch from Spaceport Cornwall

But scientists assure this is only a bump in the road...
13 January 2023


Excitement had been building for the first launch from Cornwall’s new space port; it was a UK first but sadly its first mission ended in disappointment: Virgin Orbital, owned by Richard Branson, had repurposed one of his old passenger 747s into a customised aircraft carrying the LauncherOne rocket carrying a payload of satellites destined for Earth orbit. But they never reached their destination. Blaming “an anomaly”, Virgin reported that the rocket had failed to deploy its cargo, which had burned up over the ocean. Space journalist and presenter of the Space Boffins Podcast Richard Hollingham was following the events closely. James Tytko asked him what went wrong…

Richard - The short answer to that question is we don't know yet what happened, but as you say, it was all building up to what we thought was going to be a success. I've been down there to Spaceport Cornwall, and it's an impressive operation. They got the Goonhilly ground station, which is being used to track the satellites, and then Virgin Orbit turn up, everything seemed to be going to plan, aircraft takes off, the rocket drops from the aircraft as intended, the first stage of the rocket fires. Then, it's not clear. Looking at the trajectories, it seems that the second stage of the rocket also fired, but then things went wrong and we don't know what went wrong. Fortunately, it looks like everything's insured, so although it sets things back, it will happen and it will happen again.

James - Well, that's obviously disappointing, but what you are saying there is cause for some promise, I hope. How long before the UK Space Agency can dust itself off and go again - rebuild and relaunch those satellites? Must take a fair bit of time, I assume?

Richard - Well, they're talking about a year. These satellites are only around the size of a shoebox. All the different missions that were packed into this rocket, yes, they can build them, rebuild them in a matter of months. You've got to have the testing and all the rest of it. So I would say a year would be optimistic. And it also depends on whether there's any fundamental problems with the rocket. There shouldn't be because this is a proven system, albeit a new system. But if there's some fundamental issue and there needs to be a redesign or whatever, there's a lot of moving parts here. So I think a year for this particular launch, for launch from Spaceport Cornwall, is probably optimistic.

James - And those satellites that were attached to the rocket, the whole point of this mission in the first place, which scientists in particular were there waiting to use the data collected by this equipment? Do they just sit there, twiddling their thumbs now until we are good to go again in the year timeline that you've suggested,

Richard - All the satellites on board, they were small satellites, and the UK is genuinely a world leader in building small satellites. They were all tech demonstration satellites. One by Welsh company, Space Forge, for example, it was a test of their satellite concept, and the idea was to be able to return satellites from space, which would be pretty amazing if they can do that. One of the satellites that I went to see, which was being built in Oxfordshire, I went to see that just before it was shipped down to Cornwall, and when I say shipped down to Cornwall, they stick it in the back of a car and take it down to Cornwall, that's the beauty of building and launching from the same country. That one was an investigation of telecommunications and GPS signals. So a lot of experimental satellites, a lot of things that could lead to other bigger projects, but all small teams, all small companies. So you really feel for these people and a lot of them are young, enthusiastic engineers. This is probably their first satellite as well. And you've got to see the big picture. And the big picture is in maybe 18 months time, hopefully those satellites will be in space. They'll be the mark two satellites and all this would've been forgotten. It will be a success. Ultimately, this will happen again.

James - You've preempted my coming onto a more positive footing to ask you whether, Spaceport Newquay, despite this failed launch, is a sign of things to come in terms of the UK's involvement in space science.

Richard - Let's be clear, the UK is a leader in some aspects already. The UK is a major manufacturer of satellites from the massive telecommunications satellites in high geostationary orbit around the earth, to small satellites, to scientific satellites. It's one of the major funders of the European Space Agency. We're about to have new astronauts for the UK. So, you know, the UK in space is doing pretty well. This was the missing part of the jigsaw really, to be able to do launches. You can design the satellites, build the satellites, and then launch the satellites. There's maybe a commercial advantage, long term, but also a strategic advantage that you're not relying on other countries to do this. So Spaceport Cornwall, there will be a successful launch from there, I have no doubt. There are also two other options coming up in the next few months. Vertical launches - conventional rockets - from Shetland Islands and also Sutherland, so very far North of mainland Scotland. Both those space ports are being built now. So there will be a launch from the UK in, let's say the next 18 months, couple of years. It will happen.


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