With the UK edging closer to having launch vehicles taking small satellites into space, it seems like a good time to start taking a look at the safety aspects of rocket launches.
The horizontal launch facilities at both Cornwall and Prestwick are the two that stand out as they are entering into new technological territory.
Virgin Orbit, the main launch partners at Space Cornwall, have recently tested the ‘release’ aspect of their Launcher One vehicle from the adapted Boeing 747 they have called “Cosmic Girl”. The test was proclaimed to be a success and the company are now just preparing for live launches once all the necessary legislation is in place as well as the infrastructure changes at Newquay airport.
There has been some concern about releasing rockets freefall from a plane and then initiating the launch engines mid fall. If you compare this to a vertical launch where the engines are fired up on the ground, where, if anything goes wrong it is pretty much contained, it does feel like a riskier approach.
And things can go wrong when you are firing up a launch engine. In 2013 the Russian Proton rocket took of from Kazakhstan and very quickly showed signs of its ascent not going so well, until it eventually veered completely off course and exploded spectacularly midair.
Now could you imagine this happening to a rocket that had been launched horizontally from an aeroplane.
A quick search of YouTube will come up with many other examples where things went spectacularly wrong. In most cases it was while the rocket was still on the ground and so pretty much contained.