After taking off from Cornwall, the Virgin Orbit plane flew to 35,000ft over the Atlantic Ocean where it jettisoned a rocket containing nine small satellites towards space.
The rocket reached space but experienced an anomaly before it could achieve its target orbit, in a blow to Richard Branson’s ambitions in the growing market for commercial satellite launches.
Shares in Virgin Orbit, which are listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange (^IXIC), slumped by as much as 22% wiping over $150m (£123m/€139m) off its share price.
The Start Me Up mission, named after the hit Rolling Stones song, marked the first international mission for Virgin Orbit and its first commercial launch from Western Europe.
The sister company of Virgin Galactic (SPCE), a space-tourism venture also founded by Branson, Virgin Orbit competes with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, and others for a share of the growing market for commercial satellite launches.
Susannah Streeter, senior investment and markets analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, said there were high hopes that last night’s operation would be the start of a brighter future for Virgin Orbit.
She said: "The cash burn rate for the company has been huge, and the prospects for revenue have been significantly set back.While space may have been heralded as the new investment frontier, the ventures clearly come with a huge amount of risk.
"Given the initial launch from Newquay airport also progressed well, the aborted mission is “hugely disappointing but doesn’t not fully dim Newquay’s prospects as a future space hub".
She added: "However, as investment case, the flight ahead for space looks set to be volatile.’’
Early on Tuesday morning, Virgin Orbit issued a statement: “Out of five LauncherOne missions carrying payloads for private companies and governmental agencies, this is the first to fall short of delivering its payloads to their precise target orbit.”
“While we are very proud of the many things that we have successfully achieved as part of this mission, we are mindful that we failed to provide our customers with the launch service they deserve,” chief executive Dan Hart added.
“The first-time nature of this mission added layers of complexity that our team professionally managed through; however, in the end a technical failure appears to have prevented us from delivering the final orbit.”
Science minister George Freeman called the Virgin Orbit failure “gutting”.
The plane, dubbed Cosmic Girl, returned to Spaceport Cornwall safely as engineers tried to figure out what went wrong.
Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, said: “This isn’t the first time we’ve been knocked, this is the biggest definitely, but I feel okay and we’ll get up and we’ll go again.”
“It hasn’t gone exactly to plan but we’ve done everything that we said we were going to do at Spaceport.
“We’re feeling awful, to be honest — I’m not going to lie.
“It’s gutting and we all heard at different times and when we got together there were tears, and it was very upsetting.
“We are family and we’ve been through a lot together. So, when you go through something like this as a family at least you have that support, and we all understand one another.
“There’s not much more I can say other than it’s gutting but everybody’s okay.”
Matt Archer, from the UK Space Agency, said the second stage of the launch suffered an “anomaly”, the cause of which was under investigation.
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“In effect the rocket has not reached the required altitude to maintain its orbit or deploy the satellites and therefore the mission was unsuccessful,” he said.
“Over the coming days, there’ll be an investigation involving the government and various bodies, including Virgin Orbit, to make sure we understand what caused that technical failure and again we’ll work out what to do next following that.”