‘Anomaly’ thwarts UK attempt to put satellites into space

Rocket carried beneath the wing of a modified Boeing 747 separated from the aircraft but failed to reach orbit.

Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne
Cosmic Girl, a Virgin Boeing 747-400 aircraft sits on the tarmac with Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket attached to the wing [Henry Nicholls/Reuters]

The first attempt to launch a satellite from Western Europe appears to have failed after an “anomaly” was reported to have prevented the rocket from reaching orbit.

Virgin Orbit — owned by a consortium including the United Kingdom Space Agency and British airline tycoon Richard Branson — was attempting to send nine small satellites into space from a 70-foot (21-metre) rocket attached beneath the wing of a modified Boeing 747 aircraft.

The repurposed jumbo jet took off from the coastal town of Newquay in southwest England at 22:02 GMT on Monday, with the rocket detaching from the aircraft and igniting over the Atlantic Ocean at an altitude of 10,670 metres (35,000 feet) about an hour and 20 minutes later.

But Virgin Orbit later said there had been an “anomaly that has prevented us from reaching orbit”; it said it would provide more information when it could.

The UK space industry employs 47,000 people, but while the country is second only to the United States in the number of satellites it produces, they have long had to be sent into orbit via foreign spaceports operated by countries such as the US and Kazakhstan.

More than 2,000 space fans had gathered to cheer when the aircraft took off from the runway in Newquay.

Virgin Orbit said the jumbo jet returned safely to Newquay following the mission.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies