Virgin Orbit under fire over environmental and safety concerns

22nd Feb 2021
LauncherOne

The recent rocket launch for Virgin Orbit which sent 9 satellites into space has been applauded as a major success for the company, particularly in light of its previous failures.

Earlier this year the company’s adapted Boeing 747 took off from the Mojave Air base with the Launcher One rocket attached to the underside of one of its wings. It then headed out into the Pacific Ocean, eventually reaching 35,000 ft when it detached the rocket, sending it into orbit.

This was to a degree a test run for when the company gets its operation fully up and running in the UK, where it will set up base in Cornwall.

Whilst this is very good news for the company and its stakeholders, it is extremely bad news for the environment.

With the rest of the space industry and more notably those who fall into the “New Space” category, looking for more environmentally friendly ways of sending satellites into orbit, it is quite important to highlight that Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit is doing quite the opposite.

As one of the world’s largest known polluters, Richard Branson has rarely shown any sign of concern for the environment. In 2016 alone Virgin Atlantic conducted almost 22,000 flights, giving the company a very significant carbon footprint.

The vertical launch activities are of considerable concern as they simply add further to the company’s carbon footprint and involve a far less environmental delivery system when compared to traditional vertical launch systems.

Richard Branson has already come to the attention of environmental protest group, Extinction Rebellion, when he was awarded a £12m grant by Cornwall Council last year – at a time when the council had made commitments to reduce their carbon output.

Extinction Rebellion staged a protest at the Cornwall Council chambers during a meeting at which the council approved the £12m grant. Protestors occupied the public galleries during the meeting and held a peaceful protest outside the building.

Extinction Rebellion Cornwall
Extinction Rebellion protestors in Cornwall City Council Chambers.
Protestors not happy with Virgin Orbit
Extinction Rebellion protestors’ message to Richard Branson.

The key environmental issue that Virgin Orbit has come under fire for is that they sent a Boeing 747 on a two hour flight within Earth’s atmosphere before the plane eventually released the rocket attached to one of the wings, sending tonnes of pollutants into the atmosphere. When compared to the traditional method of launching rockets, in which the rocket is launched vertically and is only in earth’s atmosphere for a few minutes, often outputting considerably less pollutants, which in many cases is mostly just steam.

The 2,000km the Virgin Orbit flight travelled would have released around 63 tonnes of CO2 into earth’s atmosphere on top of what the launcher would release, giving a total of around 75.5 tonnes of CO2. Whereas a typical medium sized rocket launched vertically would produce around 30 tonnes in total.

Potential Safety issues

There have also been questions raised about the safety case for Virgin Orbit. When compared with the vertical launch of rockets, where all personnel are kept at a safe distance in case of any disaster that could result in an explosion, the Virgin Orbit flight travelled across US territory into international waters where they released the rocket and ignited it around 20-30 metres from the aeroplane which had a significant team onboard.

Any problems that resulted in an explosion of the rocket could have very easily hit the aircraft with disastrous results.

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