Virgin’s space launch failure costs US, UK militaries four satellites

Virgin’s space launch failure costs US, UK militaries four satellites

The two stage LauncherOne orbital rocket was designed to send nine satellites to orbit but failed after a mid flight “anomaly” occurred. (Virgin Orbit)

BELFAST — Defense agencies in the United States and United Kingdom have been left frustrated by the loss of four small satellites after they failed to reach orbit during yesterday’s Virgin Orbit’s Start Me Up mission from Cornwall Spaceport, England.

The mission was closely watched and billed as a turning point for British space launch. But while the modified Boeing 747 commercial airliner known as Cosmic Girl — carrying a Launcher One rocket holding nine satellites — initially took off successfully at 5.02 ET on Jan. 10 and reached space, a second stage engine “anomaly” caused the mission to end prematurely, according to Virgin Orbit.

US Space Force’s Space Systems Command, the National Reconnaissance Office and the US Navy Research Laboratory were all involved in Start Me Up through a supporting research program partnered with the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) that explores additional launch locations outside of the US, tied to the Department of Defense’s resilience strategy.

The US and UK defense communities lost a pair of satellites each. From the US, the Navy Research Laboratory had delivered two Coordinated Ionospheric Reconstruction CubeSat Experiment (CIRCE) satellites to the UK. For its part, the UK lost Prometheus-2 experimental CubeSats designed to test radio signal monitoring, like GPS and sophisticated imaging.

The US and UK defense agencies will now need to “regroup” if they are to plan on a new launch and will face issues like claiming insurance for the lost payloads, according to Peter Round, president of the Royal Aeronautical Society, a UK aerospace and engineering institution.

“Money will need to be raised from the insurance claims and new satellites will have to be built, as manufacturers will not have made spares. The companies involved won’t just build the same as before, because they will focus on lessons learned at the last build stage,” Round told Breaking Defense.

In a statement posted on social media DSTL said that it was “saddened at the loss of Launcher One” but confirmed “work with our partners to enable continuation of our research programme” will be maintained.

At the time of publication, DSTL had not responded to a request from Breaking Defense to elaborate further on future UK-US launch plans.

“Airbus is very disappointed at the loss of the two Prometheus 2 cubesats following the Virgin Orbit launch failure in Cornwall last night” the manufacturer said in a social media post. “We will continue to invest in new space technologies to further strengthen the UK’s space capabilities and look forward to future research programmes with our partners.”

The feasibility of US satellites being launched from the UK has been proven, suggested Round, as mission processing aspects of the Start Me Up launch clearly ran to plan, a sign of encouragement for the resilience strategy.

“It definitely gives the US a new launch option,” he added. “There’s no reason to think the technical failure was any more likely to occur in Cornwall as it might have from a launch out of California.”