NEWQUAY, England – Britain’s hopes of becoming a prime launch site for small satellites remain intact despite the failure of what would have been the first launch into orbit from western Europe, business minister Grant Shapps said on Tuesday.
Hours after the groundbreaking mission to launch nine satellites ended when a Virgin Orbit rocket launched from a jumbo jet suffered an anomaly that prevented it from reaching orbit, Shapps said another attempt would follow.
“Space is difficult,” he told Sky News. “It didn’t work. No doubt they’ll pick themselves up, dust themselves off and they’ll go again.”
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Virgin Orbit chief executive Dan Hart said in a statement that the group hoped to resume missions as soon as a full investigation had been completed and evaluated.
The rocket was successfully released over the Atlantic from a Boeing 747 that took off from Newquay in southwest England, in what is known as a horizontal launch. Named LauncherOne, the rocket reached 11,000 miles per hour (17,700 km/h) before its system failed. The rocket would have broken up after the failure, experts said.
It was the latest in a series of setbacks for European space missions.
An Italian-built Vega-C rocket failed after lift-off from French Guiana last month, and the rockets have since been grounded, while the European Space Agency’s Ariane 6 launcher for big satellites has been delayed.
Britain invested about 20 million pounds ($24 million) in the spaceport and the launch, science minister George Freeman said on Monday, while the mission itself was largely funded by Virgin Orbit.
Commercial customers including Oman, the British start-up Space Forge and others are thought to have paid $10-12 million for Virgin Orbit to launch their satellites, and will be covered by its insurance, according to Matt Archer, the UK Space Agency’s commercial space director.
Virgin Orbit’s shares fell 20% to $1.48 in pre-market trading [on Jan. 10].
Shapps said he remained hopeful for the Newquay site as well as other potential spaceports in Britain, including one in Scotland’s Shetland Isles, which is being designed for vertical rocket launches.
“There’s another six locations in the UK, including a couple in Scotland, in Wales, so there’s a big chunk of money and export and jobs to be had from international space,” he said.
Sweden and Norway are also shaping up as potential competitors for space launches.
Virgin Orbit, part-owned by British billionaire Richard Branson, has had four successful missions from its base in the United States since starting them in 2020, and the Newquay mission is its second failure.
($1 = 0.8217 pounds)
(Reporting by Sarah Young and Kylie MacLellan; editing by William Schomberg and Kevin Liffey)
Photograph: This undated photo provided by Virgin Orbit on Monday, Jan. 9, 2023, shows the LauncherOne rocket in a hanger at Spaceport Cornwall, at Cornwall Airport in Newquay, England. (Virgin Orbit via AP)
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