General, Research, Technology

Virgin Orbit was unable to launch a rocket from an airplane - what happened to it?

While SpaceX is preparing to hold its firstmanned launch into space, its competitors also do not sit still. For example, Virgin Orbit entrepreneur Richard Branson decided to stand out with an unusual rocket launch ... right from an ordinary passenger plane (they still do it, right?). The idea, of course, is crazy, albeit very interesting, but after all, SpaceX was once laughed at when it first decided to reuse rockets for flight into space. However, in the case of Virgin Orbit, the launch failed: the rocket, which was supposed to go directly from space to the Boeing 747, fell into the Pacific Ocean. Why did this happen?

The rocket did not fly for several seconds

Rocket launch from an airplane

Nothing boded ill: last night at about 23:00 Moscow time, the Boeing 747, affectionately nicknamed Cosmic Girl, took off from a California aerospace test site. Flying 150 kilometers above the Pacific Ocean (in 1 hour and 6 minutes), the plane sharply raised its nose, tilted to the right to lift the left wing, under which the LauncherOne rocket was mounted, and dropped it over the ocean. The rocket was supposed to start the engine of the first stage 3 seconds after the reset (so as not to damage the plane), and judging by the reports of Virgin Orbit on Twitter, she was able to do it. Half an hour after this, the second stage was to enter the target orbit.

LauncherOne maintained stability after release,and we ignited our first stage engine, NewtonThree. An anomaly then occurred early in first stage flight. We'll learn more as our engineers analyze the mountain of data we collected today.

- Virgin Orbit (@Virgin_Orbit) May 25, 2020

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However, then “unforeseen problems” occurred,and the rocket, instead of continuing its flight, crashed over the Pacific Ocean shortly after starting the first-stage engine. For the company, this is a serious loss, because at the second stage of the rocket there were many tools and sensors that were supposed to help study its behavior during the flight.

Cosmic Girl Flight Plan

Virgin Orbit has not yet commented onthis incident - the company will conduct its investigation and retrieve the rocket from the bottom of the ocean, if possible. Nevertheless, experts in the field of weapons and readers in our Telegram chat have already suggested that the problem may be due to problems in the fuel system of the rocket, because of which it could not continue its flight.

How rockets are launched

Cosmic Girl gets ready for flight (rocket is already under the left wing)

Why even launch a rocket from an airplane? In fact, not only for the spectacular show. Starting from a high altitude allows the rocket to pass the first 10 kilometers of altitude with the highest atmospheric density, that is, the plane “helps” it to enter orbit. For almost 25 years, the Pegasus XL rocket has been launched in this way from the Lockheed L-1011 Stargazer. However, now it is not economically feasible, since the cost of such a launch is almost equal to the launch price of the Falcon 9 from SpaceX, which can carry much more payload.

First test flight LauncherOne rockets the company held at the end of 2018. Then the same Boeing 747 with a missile attached to the wing drove along the runway at a speed of about 200 kilometers per hour and took off.

A little later, the press service of the company confirmed thatit was indeed the first test flight, but, as they say, in captive carry mode, that is, without separating the rocket from the plane. The flight lasted about 90 minutes, during which the Boeing 747 flew not only over the Mojave Desert, but also over the spaceport located in this area.

And almost a year ago Virgin Orbit decided on such asame flight, but with the separation of the rocket from the plane. The company again tried to raise its own LauncherOne rocket using a Boeing 747-400 passenger aircraft. The design of the airliner was changed - under its wings special mounts were installed to hold the rocket, which can let it go at any time. The separation of the rocket occurred at a 10-kilometer altitude, but it did not turn on the engine and go into low Earth orbit, but simply fell into the territory of the US Air Force. But that fall was planned in advance, the engineers wanted to find out what happens to the plane and the rocket after separation. Fortunately, the company did not refuel the rocket with real fuel, but filled the tanks with a mixture of water and antifreeze.

LauncherOne rocket flight in 2019

This time the rocket worked on kerosene and liquidoxygen, therefore, apparently, just in case, the plane was sent away from the US coast. However, just like in 2019, she could not fly into space. True, this time the fall was not planned. Virgin Orbit engineers plan to fly a rocket with a third stage, which will help it reach the moon, but first they need to figure out at least the first one.

In general, Richard Branson has serious plans foryour brainchild. Space flights, which he wants to carry out for all comers (even for himself), will cost from 250 thousand dollars. It may seem that only a few will agree to pay such money, but for many rich people this price will be very reasonable. But first, he needs to learn how to make successful launches, at least without people. SpaceX has already trained and is ready to send the first crew to the ISS.