Virgin Orbit: Dislodged fuel filter caused failure of UK space mission

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A dislodged fuel filter caused last month’s failure of the first attempt to launch satellites into orbit from the UK, Virgin Orbit has said.

This caused an engine to overheat, leading to the malfunction of components and the premature shutdown of the LauncherOne rocket’s thrust, according to the company founded by billionaire Sir Richard Branson.

The rocket components and payload then fell back to Earth within the approved safety corridor in the Atlantic Ocean without achieving orbit.

A Virgin Orbit plane carrying a rocket
A plane carrying the rocket took off on January 9 (Ben Birchall/PA)

Chief executive Dan Hart said: “In space launch, a failure is painful for all involved.

“Intense disappointment gets quickly channelled into the motivation to dig into the cause, to understand all contributing elements and to thereby get back to flight with a better system and a wiser team.

“Our investigation is not yet complete; the team is hard at work and we’ll pursue the cause and contributors to wherever the system analysis takes us.

“However, with many clear clues from extensive data assessment now understood, we are modifying our next rocket with a more robust filter and we are looking broadly to assure that all credible contributors to mission failure are rooted out and addressed.

“With those modifications being incorporated on our factory floor, we will proceed cautiously toward the launch of our next rocket, which is well into the integration and test process.”

More than 2,000 spectators and VIPs gathered to watch the Virgin Orbit jumbo jet take off from Spaceport Cornwall in Newquay on January 9 while carrying the rocket under a wing.

The plane flew to 35,000ft over the Atlantic Ocean, where it jettisoned the rocket before returning safely.

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