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

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

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

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

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

However, an ongoing investigation into the failed launch earlier in the year and a financial crisis at the company mean the ambition now looks highly unlikely.

Other launch operators are still in the process of securing UK licences, a process that may take more than a year, and are not expected to be ready until 2024.

Virgin Orbit’s January launch, originally scheduled for the summer of 2022, fell through after the rocket’s fuel filter became detached, causing one of the engines to starve and crash back to Earth.

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

These investigations are still ongoing and are expected to continue for a few more weeks. Officials expect Virgin Orbit to operate its next mission from the US and typically takes six months to prepare between launches. Even if it chose the UK, its licenses would need to be updated.

The prospects of a UK mission this year have been further dampened by a financial crisis at Virgin Orbit, which has resulted in most of its staff taking unpaid leave to raise more money or sell themselves.

Colin Macleod, head of space regulation at the CAA, said: “It is not for the UK Civil Aviation Authority to determine a company’s launch plan, their technical and operational readiness.”

Virgin Orbit, launched by billionaire Sir Richard Branson, flies a Boeing 747 to high altitudes before dropping a rocket under its wing which then rockets into space.

The company has conducted a total of six missions, five from the US and one from Cornwall. Of these, two failed, including the British mission.

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

Virgin Orbit has burned nearly $1 billion to make Sir Richard’s rocket company dreams a reality. But since the 2021 IPO, the stock price has fallen more than 90 percent.

On Thursday, the company said in a stock release 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 released by the Science Committee, Newton Launch Systems claimed a “small change in trajectory could easily have caused a direct impact”.

The Virgin Orbit rocket was filmed burning up by people on the island of Lanzarote.

The space mission had planned potential “splashdown” zones with ship traffic on alert, and although the mission failed, the missile debris landed where expected.

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