An attempt to launch satellites into space from Britain for the first time failed late Monday night, a harsh blow for the country’s emerging space program.
Hours earlier, Britain’s space community was full of optimism. With a ticket-paying crowd looking on, a modified Boeing 747 carrying a rocket stuffed with nine satellites took off from an airport in Cornwall in southwest England.
Then, things soured. The rocket successfully separated from the plane and fired its first-stage engine. But, at a speed of more than 11,000 miles an hour, the rocket “experienced an anomaly, ending the mission prematurely,” according to Virgin Orbit, the California-based company behind the launch.
While the 747 and its crew returned safely, the nine satellites aboard the rocket were lost. The destruction of these high-tech devices means that their makers and sponsors have potentially lost years of work.
Failures in space launches are not unusual, and this one seems unlikely to deter Britain’s effort to become a country that not only can make satellites but also launch them. “When walking back from the airfield there was a definite stoic and resilient feeling that this isn’t the end of it,” said Emma Jones, the U.K. business director of RHEA Group, a Belgian space security company, which lost a navigation satellite on the Virgin Orbit rocket.
Still, the mission’s failure was undoubtedly a setback to participants. Among those taking a hit was In-Space Missions, a British satellite maker. A team at the company had spent the last couple of years making a pair of small surveillance devices for the launch, funded by agencies of the British Ministry of Defense and the United States military.
“Our two satellites would have been two of the most complex and magnificent satellites in the night sky,” said Doug Liddle, the company’s chief executive. “To have lost those is very upsetting for everyone.” Most of the devices on board were probably not insured, he said.
Still, British officials and people in the space industry say that even though the launch went awry, it represented important advances. To stage the launch, Britain has had to develop both the necessary infrastructure and regulatory regimes, a lengthy process.
“We didn’t quite make it over the line, but we have made it most of the way there,” Mr. Liddle said.
While it is difficult to say what impact Monday’s launch failure might have on future funding in Britain, the country’s space industry has momentum. Preparations for vertical rocket launches are already well underway at two sites in Scotland.
Virgin Orbit, founded by the British entrepreneur Richard Branson, also seems inclined to return, although Dan Hart, the company’s chief executive, said in an interview just before the failure that the launch in Britain had been an “expensive undertaking” because of the need to work out logistics and regulatory matters.
Operating out of Cornwall required the company to move from an established base in the Mojave Desert in California to a new one in wet and windy Europe. “The first time nature of this mission added layers of complexity that our team professionally managed through,” Mr. Hart said in a statement after the loss of the rocket and satellites onboard.
Virgin Orbit, which has conducted four successful launches from the Mojave, says it hopes to “return to orbit” after conducting an investigation and taking “corrective actions.”