Virgin Orbit‘s first orbital launch from UK soil, which was seen as a milestone for the company and the region, may have failed due to a $100 component. According to SpaceNews, Virgin Orbit CEO, Dan Hart revealed at the SmallSat Symposium in California that the evidence so far points to a filter in the rocket’s second-stage engine getting dislodged and causing issues.
The launch took place on January 9th, 2023 and things seemed to be going smoothly at first. Virgin’s LauncherOne rocket successfully detached from its carrier aircraft and stage separation was reported as successful. However, it soon became clear that the rocket was unable to reach orbit. A company spokesperson stated that “the upper stage experienced an anomaly” and “prematurely ended the first burn of the upper stage”. The mission was ultimately ended, with the rocket components and payload falling back to Earth without ever reaching orbit.
The LauncherOne rocket was carrying satellites from seven customers, including government entities, with one of its payloads being a joint project between the UK Defense Science and Technology Laboratory and the US Naval Research Laboratory called CIRCE. Despite the failure, Virgin Orbit promised to conduct a full investigation into the root cause of the anomaly and announced plans for another UK launch later this year.
During the SmallSat Symposium, CEO Dan Hart revealed the company’s findings so far, stating that “everything points to, right now, a filter that was clearly there when we assembled the rocket but was not there as the second stage engine started, meaning it was dislodged and caused mischief downstream”. He went on to say that the $100 filter was the cause of the failure and that the company will no longer be using it. Virgin Orbit is currently looking for potential fixes.