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Issue with the rocket’s second stage, according to Virgin Orbit, caused the mission to fail

Sir Richard Branson’s eccentric rocket firm, Virgin Orbit, blamed a problem with the rocket’s second stage for the failure of a flight earlier this week.

The LauncherOne rocket successfully reached orbit and separated into its stages, however the anomaly cut short the first firing of the upper stage’s engines at an altitude of around 180 kilometres, according to a statement released by Virgin. The rocket’s components and cargo returned to Earth due to the engine anomaly and were destroyed during atmospheric reentry.

Nine tiny satellites made comprised the mission’s cargo, including two CubeSats for the UK Ministry of Defense, a maiden test satellite from Welsh in-space manufacturing business Space Forge, and what would have been Oman’s first earth observation satellite.

Engineers and board members at Virgin Orbit have began digging through mission telemetry data in an effort to pinpoint what’s causing the strange behaviour. Virgin Orbit said that former United Launch Alliance vice president for the Atlas and Delta launch system projects Jim Sponnick and Virgin Orbit chief engineer Chad Foerster will head a formal inquiry into the cause of the incident.

According to the business, the inquiry will be finished and the necessary steps taken before LaucherOne’s next flight out of California’s Mojave Air and Space Port. When exactly Virgin’s Boeing 747 and rocket system will take to the skies again is anyone’s guess. For “as soon as later this year,” Virgin said it was in negotiations with the British government to undertake another launch from the United Kingdom’s new Space Port in Cornwall.

Such unpredictability is never helpful for a publicly traded firm, but it must be particularly trying for Virgin Orbit given its depleting financial reserves and urgent need to increase launch frequency to raise revenues. By the end of the year, Virgin had received $25 million from Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and $20 million from Virgin Investments Ltd., bringing its total cash and short-term investments to $71 million as of September 30. If Virgin is unable to resume its launch operations quickly, these monies will serve just to postpone the inevitable.