No hope of UK rocket launch before 2024 after Virgin Orbit failure

Undated MoD photo of the Virgin Orbit LauncherOne. Richard Branson’s satellite launch company Virgin Orbit has suspended operations, the company said, amid reports it is working to secure additional funding. The news comes after the California-based company failed on its first-ever satellite mission from UK soil in January. Issue date: Thursday March 16, 2023. PA Photo. See PA story SCIENCE VirginOrbit. Photo credit should read: MoD/PA Wire NOTE TO EDITORS: This photo may only be used for editorial reporting purposes for the contemporaneous illustration of events, things or people in the image or the facts mentioned in the caption. Reuse of the image may require additional permission from the copyright holder. – Department of Defense/AP Media

Britain has little hope of hosting a successful orbital rocket mission this year, space officials have admitted, after Virgin Orbit’s ‘Start Me Up’ satellite launch failed in January.

Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) staff have privately told members of the space industry that there is unlikely to be another mission in 2023, according to two sources.

Virgin Orbit previously said it hoped to return to Cornwall for a mission before the end of the year.

However, an ongoing investigation into its failed launch earlier this year and a financial crisis within the company mean that the ambition is now very unlikely to be realized.

Other launch operators are still in the process of obtaining UK licenses, a process that can take over a year, and are not expected to be ready until 2024.

Virgin Orbit’s January launch, originally scheduled for summer 2022, failed after its rocket’s fuel filter dislodged, starving one of its engines and knocking it back to earth.

The rupture caused a total loss of the rocket’s payload of nine satellites and prompted an investigation by UK authorities and the Federal Aviation Authority in the US.

These investigations are still ongoing and are expected to take several more weeks. Officials expect Virgin Orbit to fly its next mission from the US and, even if it chose the UK, it would need to refresh its licenses.

Prospects for a UK assignment this year have been further dampened by a financial crisis at Virgin Orbit which has seen it put most of its staff on unpaid leave as it tries to raise more funds or sell.

Colin Macleod, head of space regulation at the CAA, said: “It is not for the UK Civil Aviation Authority to set the timing for a company’s launch. For all vertical and horizontal activities, it is determined by the launch, spaceport and range operators and primarily their technical and operational readiness.”

Virgin Orbit, launched by billionaire Sir Richard Branson, operates by flying a Boeing 747 to high altitude, before dropping a rocket under its wing which then explodes in space.

The company conducted six missions in total, five from the United States and one from Cornwall. Of these, two ended in failure, including the British mission.

Sir Richard’s launch attempt in the UK was supposed to be a British first: launching commercial satellites into space from British soil for the first time.

Virgin Orbit has spent almost a billion dollars to make dreams of Sir Richard’s rocket company a reality. But since its IPO in 2021, its share price has fallen more than 90%.

The company said in a stock market advisory on Thursday that it was in “discussions with potential funding sources” and exploring “strategic opportunities.”

Separately, a British space company has claimed that Virgin Orbit’s mission could have ended in a “near miss” after its rocket burned up near the Canary Islands.

In a submission to MPs published by the Science Committee, Newton Launch Systems claimed that a “small change in trajectory could easily have caused a direct impact”.

The Virgin Orbit rocket was filmed burning by residents of the island of Lanzarote.

The space mission had forecast potential “splashdown” areas with alert shipping traffic and, despite the mission’s failure, the rocket debris fell where expected.

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