Britain's bid to launch first satellites from Europe ends in failure

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By Euronews  with AP / Reuters / AFP
Virgin Atlantic Cosmic Girl is parked at Spaceport Cornwall, in Newquay, England,
Virgin Atlantic Cosmic Girl is parked at Spaceport Cornwall, in Newquay, England,   -   Copyright  Ben Birchall/PA Media

The first-ever satellite mission launched from Western Europe soil ended in disappointment early on Tuesday, when Virgin Orbit said its rocket had suffered an anomaly that prevented it from reaching orbit.

The US-based company attempted its first international launch on Monday, using a modified jumbo jet called "Cosmic Girl" to carry one of its rockets from Cornwall in southwestern England to the Atlantic Ocean where the rocket was released. 

The rocket was supposed to take nine small satellites for mixed civil and defence use into orbit.

But about two hours after the plane took off, the company reported that the mission encountered a problem.

“We appear to have an anomaly that has prevented us from reaching orbit. We are evaluating the information,” Virgin Orbit said on Twitter.

In a statement, the company said the historic first attempt "ultimately fell short of reaching its target orbit".

Hundreds of people watched the launch, named "Start Me Up" after the Rolling Stones song.

Around an hour into the flight, the plane released the rocket at around 10,000 meters over the Atlantic Ocean to the south of Ireland.

The plane, piloted by a Royal Air Force pilot, returned to Cornwall after releasing the rocket.

The satellites have a variety of civil and defence functions, from sea monitoring that will help countries detect people smugglers to space weather observation.

High hopes

UK officials had high hopes for the mission. Ian Annett, deputy chief executive at the UK Space Agency, said it marked a “new era” for his country's space industry. 

If the mission had been successful, the UK will be one of only nine countries that can launch craft into Earth's orbit.

There was strong market demand for small satellite launches, Annett said, and the UK has ambitions to be ”the hub of European launches."

In the past, satellites produced in the UK had to be sent to spaceports in other countries to make their journey into space.

The mission was a collaboration between the UK Space Agency, the Royal Air Force, Virgin Orbit and Cornwall Council.

Virgin Orbit was founded by British billionaire Richard Branson and has previously completed four similar launches from California.

The launch was originally planned for late last year, but it was postponed because of technical and regulatory issues.

Launch failures

The failure deals a further blow to European space ambitions after an Italian-built Vega-C rocket mission failed after lift-off from French Guiana in late December.

The rockets have since been grounded. 

Europe has suffered a series of setbacks in the past year, with its key Ariane 6 launcher delayed, access to Russian Soyuz rockets blocked by the Ukraine war, Vega grounded and now a showcase launch for the burgeoning small launcher industry abandoned.

Commercialisation of space

The number of space bases in Europe has grown in recent years due to the commercialisation of space.

For a long time, satellites were primarily used for institutional missions by national space agencies but most of Europe's spaceport projects are now private-sector initiatives.

The market has exploded with the emergence of small start-ups, modern technology making both rockets and satellites smaller, and the rapidly growing number of applications for satellites.

Some 18,500 small satellites -- those weighing less than 500 kilograms  -- are expected to be launched between 2022 and 2031, compared with 4,600 in the previous decade.