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Virgin Orbit's first UK orbital launch may have failed due to a $100 component

A filter got dislodged and caused issues mid-flight, Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said.

Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit's first orbital launch from UK soil, which was supposed to be a huge milestone for the company and for the region, may have ended in failure because of a component that cost around $100. According to SpaceNews, Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart has revealed at the SmallSat Symposium in Mountain View, California that the evidence so far points to a filter in the rocket's second stage engine getting dislodged and causing issues.

If you'll recall, the company launched its historic "Start Me Up" mission from Spaceport Cornwall on January 9th, and things seemed to flow smoothly at first. Virgin's LauncherOne rocket was able to detach from its carrier aircraft, and the company reported a successful stage separation. But soon, it became clear that the rocket wasn't able to reach orbit as planned. "[The rocket's] upper stage experienced an anomaly," a company spokesperson told Engadget at the time, and that "prematurely ended the first burn of the upper stage." They added: "This event ended the mission, with the rocket components and payload falling back to Earth within the approved safety corridor without ever achieving orbit."

The LauncherOne rocket for the mission was carrying satellites from seven customers, including government entities. One of its payloads was a joint project between the UK Defense Science and Technology Laboratory and the US Naval Research Laboratory called CIRCE (Coordinated Ionospheric Reconstruction CubeSat Experiment). Virgin Orbit promised to conduct a full investigation into the root cause of the anomaly, but it didn't wait for results to come back before announcing that it was going to attempt another UK launch as soon as later this year.

The company isn't done with its investigation, Hart said during the event, but he was confident enough to reveal the investigators' findings: "Everything points to, right now, a filter that was clearly there when we assembled the rocket but was not there as the second stage engine started, meaning it was dislodged and caused mischief downstream," he said. "This is like a $100 part that took us out." Hart also said that Virgin Orbit is no longer going to use that filter and that it's currently looking for potential fixes.