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Virgin Orbit assesses rocket failure

January 11, 2023

Virgin Orbit has reported that its Cosmic Girl launch from Cornwall on January 9th “ultimately fell short of reaching its target orbit”. The company admitted that the effort was not a moment to remember. Investors shared the sentiment and sent Virgin Orbit Holdings share price on the Nasdaq exchange crashing down 22 per cent on January 10th, and thus an 83 per cent tumble since the stock floated on the Nasdaq.

Pre-launch documents filed with UK authorities state that Virgin Orbit’s own risk assessment estimate that its missions have a 27 per cent chance of failure and that while it planned for 17 launches from UK facilities by 2030 four of those launches could fail.

Susannah Streeter, senior investment and markets analyst at investment advisors Hargreaves Lansdown, said: “There had been high hopes that the operation would be the start of a brighter future for Virgin following the troubles which have beset the company since it became a publicly traded company. The cash burn rate for the company has been huge, and the prospects for revenue have been significantly set back. While space may have been heralded as the new investment frontier, the ventures clearly come with a huge amount of risk. This is a major set-back for Virgin Orbit and for Cornwall’s ambitions as a new launchpad for space ventures, but the problems may not be unsurmountable.”

“After successfully taking off from the runway at Spaceport Cornwall – which just a few weeks ago was transformed from a mere slab of empty cement at a commercial airport to the world’s newest space launch operations center – and travelling to the designated drop zone, Cosmic Girl, the customized 747 that serves as the LauncherOne system’s carrier aircraft, successfully released the rocket,” said Virgin Orbit.

“The rocket then ignited its engines, quickly going hypersonic and successfully reaching space. The flight then continued through successful stage separation and ignition of the second stage. However, at some point during the firing of the rocket’s second stage engine and with the rocket travelling at a speed of more than 11,000 miles per hour, the system experienced an anomaly, ending the mission prematurely” the company added.

Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit CEO, said: “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. The first-time nature of this mission added layers of complexity that our team professionally managed through; however, in the end a technical failure appears to have prevented us from delivering the final orbit. We will work tirelessly to understand the nature of the failure, make corrective actions, and return to orbit as soon as we have completed a full investigation and mission assurance process.”

Matt Archer, Director of Commercial Spaceflight at the UK Space Agency, said: “Last night, Virgin Orbit attempted the first orbital launch from Spaceport Cornwall. We have shown the UK is capable of launching into orbit, but the launch was not successful in reaching the required orbit. 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. Despite this, the project has succeeded in creating a horizontal launch capability at Spaceport Cornwall, and we remain committed to becoming the leading provider of commercial small satellite launch in Europe by 2030, with vertical launches planned from Scotland.”

Melissa Thorpe, Head of Spaceport Cornwall, added: “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. Unfortunately, we learned that Virgin Orbit experienced an anomaly which means we didn’t achieve a successful mission. Today we inspired millions, and we will continue to look to inspire millions more. Not just with our ambition but also with our fortitude. Yes, space is hard, but we are only just getting started.”

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