Virgin Orbit fails on first mission from the UK with Start Me Up

by William Graham

Virgin Orbit attempted to carry out the first satellite launch from the United Kingdom on Monday with the first LauncherOne mission out of Spaceport Cornwall. LauncherOne was dropped from Virgin’s Cosmic Girl carrier aircraft off the coast of Ireland at approximately 23:11 UTC, and flight appeared nominal through stage 2 ignition and fairing separation, although updates from Virgin Orbit during the flight were intermittent.

Monday’s launch would have marked the first orbital mission to begin from UK soil, demonstrating the air-launched LauncherOne vehicle’s ability to fly from almost anywhere in the world. Although it launched from the UK, the rocket is of US design and construction, and the launch has been procured under a contract between Virgin Orbit and the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO).

The payload announced for Monday’s launch consists of nine small satellites — although with the involvement of the NRO and several other military organizations, additional classified payloads cannot be ruled out. The primary payload was Prometheus-2, a pair of CubeSats that was to conduct a technology demonstration mission for the Ministry of Defence (MoD) and allied governments. Other payloads included other missions for British government and private organizations, most in collaboration with international partners, as well as a Polish CubeSat and the first satellite for the Sultanate of Oman.

Continuing Virgin Orbit’s tradition of naming their missions after famous songs — founder Richard Branson’s first business having been Virgin Records — this launch was named Start Me Up in honor of the 1981 song by the Rolling Stones. It is the sixth satellite launch to be conducted by Virgin Orbit and its LauncherOne rocket, with all five previous missions having been flown from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.

While Monday’s launch was the first to take place from Great Britain itself, the UK previously had its own satellite launch program which culminated in the successful launch of the Prospero satellite in October 1971 aboard a Black Arrow rocket. These launches, however, took place from Woomera, Australia.

LauncherOne did not lift off directly from British soil, as it is an air-launched rocket. Instead, its carrier plane — Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747 Cosmic Girl — took off from Spaceport Cornwall to carry the rocket to its release altitude. Cosmic Girl then flew a racetrack pattern over the drop zone, off the southwest coast of the Republic of Ireland, before deploying LauncherOne from a pylon under its wing.

Cosmic Girl is a Boeing 747-41R which first flew in Sept. 2001. Delivered to Virgin Atlantic the same year with the registration G-VWOW, it spent the first 14 years of its career carrying passengers before being transferred to Virgin Galactic in 2015, and then on to Virgin Orbit in 2017 when the company split its orbital launch business away from its suborbital human spaceflight operations. LauncherOne’s pylon under the port wing uses a mounting point that was built into all 747s to allow for transportation of a spare engine.

Currently, Virgin Orbit uses Cosmic Girl as the launch platform for all LauncherOne missions; however, in May 2022, the company announced plans to procure a second aircraft which will allow it to increase the rate at which LauncherOne can fly.

Cosmic Girl, Virgin Orbit’s launch aircraft (Credit: Virgin Orbit)

Spaceport Cornwall, also known as Newquay Airport, is located near the town of Newquay, on the coast of England’s most south-westerly county, Cornwall. Built in the 1930s, the airfield came under Royal Air Force (RAF) use during the Second World War as RAF Trebelzue, later renamed RAF St Mawgan. From the 1950s until the 1990s, maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine warfare units were based at the airfield. RAF search and rescue helicopter squadrons were also based there until 2008, and today the service still maintains a smaller, non-flying, presence at the airfield.

The airfield also hosts general aviation and commercial flights, with the latter serving domestic routes and European holiday destinations on a mostly seasonal basis. Commercial flying from the airfield began in the 1950s, with its first civilian terminal opening in 1962. The airfield has a single runway, 12/30, with a length of 2.7 kilometers (9,000 feet).

In Nov. 2019, the British Government announced funding to enable Virgin Orbit to conduct satellite launches from Newquay, which was selected from a shortlist that included other airfields in the UK — including Prestwick and Campbeltown in Scotland and Llanbedr in Wales.

Britain’s only satellite launch was made from Australia by a Black Arrow rocket in 1971 (Credit: ESA)

While this was the first launch Virgin Orbit has conducted from a base outside of the United States, it is not the first time that air-launched launch vehicles have demonstrated their ability to be forward-deployed to other countries. A Pegasus-XL rocket, then operated by Orbital Sciences Corporation (now part of Northrop Grumman), launched Spain’s Minisat-01 satellite in April 1997 with its launch aircraft flying from Gando Air Base on the island of Gran Canaria. Pegasus launches have also been conducted out of Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands when targeting near-equatorial orbits.

In preparation for the Start Me Up mission, Cosmic Girl departed her home base at the Mojave Air and Space Port on Oct. 9 for Fort Lauderdale in Florida, before crossing the Atlantic on Oct. 11 and touching down in Newquay at 18:26 British Summer Time (17:26 UTC). LauncherOne arrived a few days later aboard an RAF C-17 Globemaster transport aircraft. At the time, launch was slated for November, but the mission was subsequently delayed by testing and regulatory issues. On Dec. 22, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) awarded Virgin Orbit its launch license to carry out the mission — marking the first time the CAA has ever licensed a satellite launch.

LauncherOne was fueled ahead of launch day, however oxidizer and gas loading was conducted shortly before the carrier aircraft departed Spaceport Cornwall in a process beginning about three and a quarter hours before takeoff. Cosmic Girl took off and headed northwest towards the launch area. Upon reaching the drop zone, Cosmic Girl began flying an oval racetrack pattern at deployment altitude — during a launch rehearsal in December, an altitude of 30,000 feet (9.14 km) was used.

LauncherOne arrives at Spaceport Cornwall in October (credit: Spaceport Cornwall)

In Virgin Orbit’s terminology, time T0 is the point in the countdown at which Cosmic Girl takes off, and time D0 is the time that LauncherOne is released from the carrier aircraft.

After system checkouts, as Cosmic Girl passes through the drop zone in a south-south-easterly direction, she pulled up and released LauncherOne. A few seconds after release, the NewtonThree engine that powers LauncherOne’s first stage ignited, and the vehicle began its climb towards space. Cosmic Girl then returned to Spaceport Cornwall.

Not including the carrier aircraft, LauncherOne is a two-stage rocket with both stages burning RP-1 kerosene propellant, oxidized by liquid oxygen. The first stage burns for around three minutes before reaching main engine cutoff (MECO), at which point it shuts down. Stage separation occurs three seconds after MECO. The second stage’s NewtonFour engine ignites four seconds after separation to begin the first of two planned burns.

The payload fairing separates from the nose of LauncherOne about 20-30 seconds after second stage ignition. The first burn was to last about five and a half minutes, ending with second stage engine cutoff 1 (SECO-1). With this complete, the second stage would enter a coast phase, performing a barbecue roll to help manage thermal conditions.

Around the D+47 minute mark in the mission, the second stage was planned to begin to reorient itself to make its second burn. This burn would have commenced about six and a quarter minutes later, with the burn lasting a few seconds to circularize the orbit. Payload deployments were expected to begin about a minute after the end of the second burn.

Cosmic Girl releases LauncherOne, seen during a 2019 drop test (Credit: Credit: Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson)

The Prometheus-2A and 2B satellites, which make up the primary payload for Start Me Up, are a pair of six-unit (6U) CubeSats which were to be operated by the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL). They were constructed by In-Space Missions Ltd in partnership with Airbus Defence and Space and are part of a joint venture between allied government agencies including the UK and the United States to demonstrate technologies for future military space missions including the UK’s Minerva program.

Prometheus-2A carried a hyperspectral imaging system, while Prometheus-2B carried a pair of cameras: one with a wide-angle lens for Earth imaging and another to test space situational awareness by monitoring Prometheus-2A. The Prometheus-2B satellite also carries a laser range finder, with 2A equipped with a detector, and both satellites carry GPS receivers.

IOD-3, also known as IOD-AMBER, was another 6U CubeSat being carried for the Satellite Applications Catapult, an organization set up to promote space research and development. Built by Clyde Space, the satellite was to test a maritime signals intelligence (SIGINT) platform, FlyingFish, in orbit for Horizon Technologies. It was to collect radio frequency (RF) signals from ships, including Automatic Identification System (AIS) transmissions, radar emissions and l-band communications used by satellite phones, to attempt to locate the vessels. It would have served as a precursor to a planned constellation of satellites.

The Coordinated Ionospheric Reconstruction CubeSat Experiment (CIRCE) was to use a pair of 6U CubeSats to study the Earth’s ionosphere. A joint program between DSTL and the US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), the satellites were planned to monitor chemistry and composition, radiation, ultraviolet emissions, and signal propagation to help build a better understanding of the effects of the ionosphere and space weather on military capabilities, such as communications and space situational awareness.

RHEA Group’s Dover Pathfinder satellite was a 3U CubeSat co-sponsored by the European Space Agency’s Navigation Innovation and Support Programme (NAVISP). It carried a satellite navigation receiver and was to be used to study how next-generation navigation systems can be made more resilient. The satellite was named after the Strait of Dover, the narrowest part of the English Channel, where historical navigation and timekeeping research has been conducted.

Render of the Prometheus-2A and 2B satellites in orbit (Credit: DSTL)

The ForgeStar-0 satellite, being carried for Cardiff-based aerospace company Space Forge, was a pathfinder for a modular satellite platform which its operators plan to use to conduct in-space manufacturing in the future. The satellite carried a laser retroreflector to help track the decay of its orbit and was also to test radiation shielding. A prototype satellite, it was built to the same 3U CubeSat standard as Dover Pathfinder.

STORK 6 and AMAN were also 3U CubeSats with Earth observation missions, and both were built by Polish company SatRevolution (SatRev). STORK 6 is the latest in a series of Earth observation satellites as part of SatRev’s Earth-imaging constellation. AMAN was developed by SatRev on behalf of Omani company ETCO and was to be the first satellite operated by the Sultanate of Oman. Both satellites carry SatRev’s Vision-300 camera system, which can produce images of the Earth at resolutions of up to five meters.

All of the satellites were built to the CubeSat set of standards, which are based around units of size measuring 10 by 10 by 10 centimeters. A three-unit CubeSat measures 30 cm in length and 10 cm along both other axes. A typical 6U satellite — a definition that includes all of the 6U satellites aboard Monday’s launch — measures 30 by 20 by 10 cm.

The Start Me Up mission is appropriately named, as Monday’s launch began what could be a momentous year for the space industry in the United Kingdom. Inaugural launches from two vertical-launch sites in Scotland could also take place in 2023.

ABL Space Systems plan to launch its RS1 rocket from SaxaVord Spaceport in the Shetland Islands once it has completed a pair of demonstration flights from Kodiak Island, Alaska. Coincidentally, RS1’s maiden flight was also scheduled for liftoff on Monday, less than an hour before LauncherOne’s mission, but slipped 24 hours due to winds.

Orbex’s Prime is due to fly from Scotland later this year (Credit: Mack Crawford for NSF/L2)

Two British companies, Orbex and Skyrora, are in the process of developing their own rockets. Orbex’s Prime rocket will fly from Space Hub Sutherland, currently under construction on the A’ Mhòine peninsula on the north coast of Scotland, while Skyrora-XL will launch from SaxaVord. Both vehicles are currently slated to make maiden flights this year, and it is hoped that one of these vehicles will become the first British-developed rocket to launch a satellite since Black Arrow in 1971.

(Lead image: Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne in flight during a captive-carry test flight in 2020. Credit: Virgin Orbit)

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