Virgin Orbit performed a demonstration of its full launch system on Monday, and while it didn’t go quite as planned, with the mission cut short just a few seconds after Virgin’s LauncherOne separated from its Cosmic Girl carrier aircraft, the company says it still learned a lot — and a lot went right, too.
Spaceflight is tough stuff, and it’s actually pretty common for a new spacecraft to not quite get everything right on its first time out. SpaceX took four tries with its original Falcon 1 rocket to make it to space, for instance. Test flights are tests for a reason, and Virgin Orbit notes that it actually did ace a lot of the aspects of the test, including launch-vehicle release, the controlled drop after that release point, igniting the rocket on LauncherOne and even the first couple of seconds of powered flight after that — all of which it says proves out the viability of its launch model.
Virgin also says it was able to collect good data from “hundreds of channels and sensors” during the launch, which is another reason why companies test systems to begin with. That was the main purpose of Monday’s launch, and that should help them go back to work on ensuring that the part of the mission that didn’t go so well doesn’t happen again. So far, Virgin Orbit knows that around nine seconds into its flight, the booster engine on LauncherOne extinguished due to a malfunction, causing the rocket to fall harmlessly into the ocean. They don’t yet know the cause of that malfunction, but say they are “confident” they have enough data to eventually figure out the cause.
Meanwhile, Virgin Orbit says that this test did prove a number of important things about its approach to launching spacecraft. First, that its mobile, flexible ground operating system that can launch outside of U.S. federal ranges works as designed. Second, that its autonomous flight safety system works as designed to protect the safety of the general public. Also, this is the first time that Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne have flown with liquid oxygen fuel on board, so this is a verification that its fuel containment system works. And, as mentioned, the LauncherOne release and initial flight matched simulations perfectly, so Virgin Orbit knows that part of the system is well-designed.
There’s still a lot of work to be done before the company can make a second orbital launch attempt, but luckily it already has a robust rocket-building pipeline in place. Virgin Orbit isn’t yet saying when exactly we can expect a second launch test to occur, and I wouldn’t expect it to be before it determines the root cause of the malfunction it encountered, but it might not take as long as you think.