UK's Historic Satellite Launch Fails to Reach Orbit

    UK's Historic Satellite Launch Fails to Reach Orbit
    Last updated Jan 10, 2023
    Image credit: Getty Images [via Financial Times]


    • The UK's attempt to launch the first European satellites into space failed after an "anomaly" prevented the object from reaching orbit. The UK government and Virgin Orbit, among other involved parties, say they will investigate the problem.[1]
    • Thousands of onlookers gathered in Cornwall to watch the LauncherOne takeoff but began dispersing when news circulated that the rocket — which was strapped to a repurposed Boeing 747 — had encountered difficulties. It was expected to burn up on reentry, with all of the nine satellites onboard being destroyed.[2]
    • In addition to causing Virgin Orbit's share price to decline by more than 20% following the incident, the failed launch dented the UK's ambition to become Europe's top provider of launch services. Other competitors include Norway and Sweden.[3]
    • Satellites onboard the rocket belonged to various organizations, including the UK's Ministry of Defense, the sultanate of Oman, and the US National Reconnaissance Office, as well as British startups including Space Forge.[4]
    • The UK Space Agency's Matt Archer said the failure was "obviously disappointing," but added that the group "knew this had a risk of failure." Space launches "don't always work," he continued. The rocket failed as it reached its second stage in which the satellites would have been deployed.[5]
    • The UK's business minister Grant Shapps said on Tuesday that another attempt will follow. Britain's government invested roughly £20M ($24M) in the spaceport and launch.[6]


    Pro-establishment narrative

    Rocket technology is immensely complicated, and, although this result is disappointing, those involved will likely embark on another mission very soon. These launches are difficult, but one setback will not deter researchers from making further progress in the near future. There is no need to feel ashamed over this result.

    Establishment-critical narrative

    This failure has left multiple senior members of the UK government with egg on their faces. By trumpeting the success of the mission before it was guaranteed, Freeman and Shapps have embarrassed the upper echelons of government by appearing to utilize this launch as a public relations stunt rather than an advance for the sake of scientific progress.

    Nerd narrative

    There is a 50% chance that a fifth nation will launch a person into space by July 2030, according to the Metaculus prediction community.

    Establishment split