LauncherOne failure probably due to ‘dislodged’ component

16th Feb 2023
LauncherOne failure probably due to  ‘dislodged’ component

Virgin Orbit has provided an update to the ongoing investigation into the failure of its ‘Start Me Up’ mission. VO confirmed previous claims that a $100 component in LauncherOne had “dislodged” and ended the second stage burn prematurely. The failure of such a monumental event in the UK’s space history has been a big discouragement in the community, but both Spaceport Cornwall and Virgin Orbit have asserted they are determined to fly again soon.

The event occurred on 9th January and saw a LauncherOne rocket attached to a 747 aircraft lift off into space from Spaceport Cornwall at the Newquay Airport. As the rocket neared the end of its mission, an anomaly occurred which resulted in the satellites not proceeding into orbit but re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere and plummeting into the Atlantic Ocean.

Investigations have been ongoing, with the leadership of several aerospace veterans, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and several UK accident bodies.

Small LauncherOne component confirmed as the culprit

According to the statement released on the 14th February, Virgin Orbit said it was developing a “comprehensive fault tree” including a detailed timeline and other information to conduct the investigation. Virgin Orbit claims this is the likely cause:

  • At the beginning of the second stage’s first burn, a fuel filter within the feedline was dislodged
  • The fuel pump that is downstream of the filter, therefore, operated at a “degraded efficiency level”, which meant its Newton 4 engine was being “starved of fuel” and operated at a higher engine temperature
  • Components below the fuel malfunctioned due to the “abnormally hot engine”, causing the second-stage to fail  

Despite publishing the information, Virgin Orbit asserts that the above is only a “credible scenario” at this point and is being investigated among others. Virgin Orbit’s CEO Dan Hart stated on 14th February that the “clear clues” from the investigation mean the company can modify its next rocket with “a more robust filter”.

Industry speculations on failure

While the failure is not uncommon during a rocket launch – especially during a first attempt – there has been ongoing speculation that the issue is far deeper. Several articles and analyses from publications have pointed the finger at the British government, claiming they pushed the launch for a good news story, despite concerns from staff.

Furthermore, a leaked transcript from Virgin Orbit or Spaceport Cornwall staff was allegedly released, according to Express, detailing how the launch only had a 50/50 chance of success. However, the head of Spaceport Cornwall, Melissa Thorpe, has since denied there were any concerns from staff and that the other reports were untrue. She also confirmed no one from the company has spoken to Express and the supposed transcript is “full of inaccuracies”. She said to CornwallLive:

“That’s not how space works. You can’t rush anything, especially for the first time. No, definitely not the case – we never felt any pressure from the Government at all.”

Regardless of ongoing speculation from the industry, Virgin Orbit said all credible causes of the failure will be address prior to the next attempt of the LauncherOne mission.

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