Virgin Orbit confirms a dislodged fuel filter caused its first UK launch to fail

In a new update, Virgin Orbit has confirmed that the launch failure of its first UK mission was likely caused by a fuel filter that had been “dislodged from its normal position.” That created a cascade of events that led to the shutdown of the second stage rocket, which ultimately fell back to Earth along with its payload, according to data gathered so far. The investigation is being led by United Launch Alliance’s Jim Sponnick and Virgin Chief Engineer Chad Foerster, with oversight from the US FAA, UK Air Accidents Investigation branch and other authorities. 

The company’s historic “Start Me Up” mission launched from Spaceport Cornwall on January 9th and Virgin confirmed things went well at the start. “The ignition, first stage flight, stage separation, second stage ignition and fairing deployment of the LauncherOne rocket were nominal,” it wrote. “Each of these milestones constituted a first-of-its-kind achievement for any orbital launch attempt from western Europe.”

We’ve been investigating the #StartMeUp mission anomaly. Read this update for more details on our findings so far, or follow the link:

— Virgin Orbit (@VirginOrbit) February 14, 2023

That pesky $100 filter highlights the challenges of spaceflight, though. After it dislodged from its proper place in the fuel feedline, a downstream pump was starved for fuel and began operating at a significantly higher-than-rated temperature, investigators found. Parts downstream of that and in the vicinity eventually malfunctioned, causing the engine to stop. “The early thrust termination ended the mission, and the second stage and its payloads fell back to Earth, landing in the approved safety corridor in the Atlantic Ocean.”

Virgin Orbit is portraying the failure as a learning experience, but as the first UK orbital launch ever, the timing wasn’t ideal. The company noted, however, that all four prior operational flights succeeded, sending 33 payloads to their required orbits. 

The company is now creating a plan to replicate flight conditions to determine the root cause or causes of the failure, it said. “Numerous tests are underway to support the investigation and help lead to definitive conclusions. Ultimately, all credible causes of the failure will be addressed prior to the next LauncherOne mission.”


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