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Virgin Orbit clarifies the cause behind its 'Start Me Up' mission's failure to reach orbit

The anomaly that aborted the attempt has been identified as a 'premature shutdown of first burn of second stage.'

Matthew Horwood via Getty Images

Everything was going great until it wasn't in the skies over Cornwall, UK on Monday. Virgin Orbit, the space launch division of Sir Richard Branson's sprawling commercial empire, was in the midst of setting a major milestone for the country and the nation: to be the first orbital launch from European soil. The carrier aircraft, Cosmic Girl, had successfully taken off from Spaceport Cornwall, LauncherOne had cleanly separated from the modified 747 and properly ignited its first stage rocket, blasting it and its payload of satellites into space. But before they could be pushed into their proper orbit by the rocket's second stage, something went wrong. On Thursday, Virgin Orbit leaders provided a preliminary explanation as to just what happened.

"At an altitude of approximately 180 km, the upper stage experienced an anomaly. This anomaly prematurely ended the first burn of the upper stage," the company told Engadget via email. "This event ended the mission, with the rocket components and payload falling back to Earth within the approved safety corridor without ever achieving orbit."

Virgin Orbit has also announced a "formal" investigation into the root causes of the anomaly which will be led by Jim Sponnick, who developed the Atlas and Delta launch systems, and Chad Foerster, Virgin Orbit's Chief Engineer. Despite the setback, the company is already in contact with UK officials to reschedule the launch for as soon as late 2023.