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UK’s ‘space crash investigators’ to probe Virgin Orbit failure

written by Adam Thorn | January 16, 2023

The UK government department that normally investigates traditional aircraft accidents will work with its US equivalent to investigate the Virgin Orbit failure last week.

The Air Accidents Investigation Branch will face its first major test as the UK’s official Space Accident Investigation Authority (SAIA) to deduce why the pioneering 747 satellite launch from south-west England failed.

“The team will work closely with the FAA to oversee Virgin Orbit’s investigation into the cause of the anomaly,” the UK government said.

“The aim will be to ensure that any relevant safety lessons are learnt. The UK Civil Aviation Authority will act as advisors to the SAIA during this investigation.”


It comes after the space company revealed the failure was due to a technical issue with its ‘second-stage’ rocket engine.

Virgin Orbit is the successor to a project begun by Virgin Galactic and uses a modified Boeing 747-400 aircraft to launch payloads into space from mid-air.

Tuesday’s launch was the first outside the company’s home airport in the Mojave Desert, California, and significantly came before it plans a demonstrator launch at Toowoomba Wellcamp Airport in 2024.

The business’s CEO, Dan Hart, said last week his team would work “tirelessly” to understand the nature of the fault and make corrections for future attempts.

“While we are very proud of the many things that we successfully achieved as part of this mission, we are mindful that we failed to provide our customers with the launch service they deserve,” said Hart.

Matt Archer, director of commercial spaceflight at the UK Space Agency, also commented on the failed launch, pledging to assist in the investigation into what caused the anomaly.

“We will work closely with Virgin Orbit as they investigate what caused the anomaly in the coming days and weeks. While this result is disappointing, launching a spacecraft always carries significant risks.”

Other industry figures remained relatively positive, pointing out that the launch, while failing to achieve orbit, still made it to space and has paved the way for future UK-based launches.

“We are so incredibly proud of everything we have achieved with our partners and friends across the space industry here in the UK and in the US — we made it to space — a UK first,” said Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall.

The aircraft is equipped with a rocket that is mounted to the underside of the plane, just under the left wing. Once the 747 reaches an altitude of around 35,000 feet, the rocket is then detached from the aircraft. After several seconds, the rocket’s engines fire and take the payloads to orbit.

The Boeing 747 used by Virgin Orbit, named Cosmic Girl, has only received minimal modifications to prepare it for its new job of launching rockets. It previously served as an aircraft carrier for Atlantic Airlines, ferrying passengers between New York and London.

The company has plans to expand its launch services to more locations across the world, with Toowoomba Wellcamp Airport in Queensland earmarked as the next spaceport location.

Toowoomba Wellcamp Airport was chosen by Virgin Orbit due to its ideal geographical conditions for satellite launches. Many locations within Australia are appealing launch destinations due to the available orbits that can be reached from the continent.

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