'Newquay, we have a problem': Historic mission fails as UK's first space rocket stumbles on 'anomaly'

9 January 2023, 22:05 | Updated: 10 January 2023, 05:58

The rocket detached from the plane at about 11.15pm
The rocket detached from the plane at about 11.15pm. Picture: Virgin

By Kit Heren

The UK's first ever rocket to be launched into space has failed after lift-off, after suffering an "anomaly".

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The Start Me Up mission, made up of a repurposed 747 airplane carrying a rocket, jetted off into the Atlantic south of Ireland shortly after 10pm on Monday.

The Virgin Atlantic plane, called Cosmic Girl, released the Virgin Orbit rocket, named Launcher One, at about 11.15pm.

Launcher One then blasted towards orbit before the "anomaly" was encountered.

Virgin Orbit said in a statement late on Monday night: "We appear to have an anomaly that has prevented us from reaching orbit. 

"We are evaluating the information."

The rocket had been due to release nine satellites, a variety of civil and defence applications, into orbit - the first satellites launched into space from Europe.

Cosmic Girl took off at about 10pm on Monday
Cosmic Girl took off at about 10pm on Monday. Picture: Getty

In the past, satellites produced in the UK have needed to be sent to foreign spaceports to make their journey into space.

Local people had gathered earlier near the launch site in Cornwall to witness the momentous scenes on Monday night.

Tracey Byrne said she came because "it's a moment in history".

She told the BBC: "And certainly in my lifetime, there's never been anything like this here.

The airplane on Monday ahead of take-off
The airplane on Monday ahead of take-off. Picture: Virgin Orbit

"To be able to come along to somewhere that's local, be here, watch it and be able to say to people - 'we were there with all the other people, felt the atmosphere, felt the excitement of it'."

Speaking ahead of the launch, Ian Annett, deputy chief executive at the UK Space Agency, described his "immense excitement".

"Who would not be excited by the fact this is the first time that it has been done in Europe? That's because it's hard," he said.

"There is a point where the training takes over and you fall into that rhythm of the teams knowing what they need to do.

"They know when they need to make the decisions they need to make.

Engineers watching Cosmic Girl taxi
Engineers watching Cosmic Girl taxi. Picture: Virgin Orbit

"I would say the real achievements here are not the successes that you can necessarily see but all of the challenges that collectively as a team people have overcome.

"The culmination of all of that is putting these exciting missions into space. It's the things at the pointy end of the rocket that really matter."

The team first hoped the launch could take place before Christmas, but technical and regulatory issues pushed it into 2023.

Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, said: "We knew this was not going to be a piece of cake when we took up on the opportunity.

The plane taxiing for take-off
The plane taxiing for take-off. Picture: Virgin Orbit

"We worked very closely with the UK Space Agency, the Civil Aviation Authority and Spaceport Cornwall, as well as the international airspace community.

"I think we have learned a lot doing that. I think, like any first, the first time you do it is difficult, the second time you already know and can anticipate.

"The short answer is we are excited to be here, and we're excited about the future and coming back as soon as later this year to launch again."

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