LauncherOne ‘anomaly’: Six other failed launches that show the disappointing end to Cornwall’s attempt to put a satellite in space was not alone | Science & Tech News

Far from an excuse to start penning the obituary for the UK’s ambition to become a major space launch hub, a disappointing end to a historic rocket mission from the Cornish seaside was merely a reminder that space travel is far from straightforward.

LauncherOne’s failure to reach Earth’s lower orbit and deploy nine satellites, including several made in Britain, was a cruel twist after what been a night of wonder and adrenaline at Spaceport Cornwall.

Relive the space mission as it happened

But Britain is by no means alone when it comes to failed orbital missions, with some of the biggest names in spacefaring having come unstuck in recent years – sometimes with far more costly results.

Italian rocket’s nightmare before Christmas

The Cornwall launch was meant to be big not just for the UK, but western Europe as a whole, as the continent scrambles to enhance its space potential after Russian rockets were made unavailable due to the war in Ukraine.

Another mission meant to prove Europe’s credentials saw an Italian-built Vega-C rocket lift off from French Guiana on 20 December, but – like LauncherOne – an “anomaly” occurred just as satellites were due to be deployed.

Two Earth-imaging satellites were destroyed as a result, and the rockets have since been grounded with just one successful launch, which took place last summer, to their name.

Toit PortiqueESA’s new Vega-C rocket lifted off for its inaugural flight VV21 at 15:13 CEST/13:13 UTC/10:13 local time from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana. With new first and second stages and an uprated fourth stage, Vega-C increases performance to about 2.3 t in a reference 700 km polar orbit, from the 1.5 t capability of its predecessor, Vega. For flight VV21, Vega-C’s payload is LARES-2, a scientific mission of the Italian space agency ASI and six research CubeSats from France, Italy an
The Vega-C did successfully launch last summer before its Christmas setback

Private firm’s awkward NASA apology

NASA was let down by the same private space company twice in four months last year, losing the US agency six satellites in the process.

Back in February 2022, an Astra rocket launched from California with four small and low-cost CubeSats – but within minutes the spacecraft span out of control and fell back towards Earth.

Astra boss Chris Kemp said he was “deeply sorry”, but unfortunately the company ended up losing two more NASA satellites – designed to track hurricanes – after a second-stage failure in June.

Astra's rocket span out of control a few minutes after launching NASA satellites. Pic: NASA/Astra
Astra’s rockets suffered two failed missions while carrying NASA satellites. Pic: NASA/Astra

Top secret satellite gets lost (not in space)

A classified US government satellite, so secretive that its purpose has never been revealed, went missing during a SpaceX launch in 2018.

The secrecy surrounding the launch and the involvement of defence contractor Northrop Grumman in building and operating the hardware – which was due to end up in low orbit – fuelled speculation that it was defence-related.

It is thought to have been lost during deployment and re-entered Earth’s atmosphere.

SpaceX launch Falcon 9 with Starlink satellites
A SpaceX Falcon 9 carried the secretive satellite. File pic

SpaceX’s first launch goes awry

As Richard Attenborough said in Jurassic Park, even industry leaders can suffer delays.

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is now a $2bn company, but its inaugural launch in 2006 saw a Falcon 1 rocket get lost during first-stage burn after lift-off from a testing site in the Marshall Islands.

It’s fair to say things have gone pretty well for the firm since then.

SpaceX engineers make final preparations on Falcon 1 rocket at Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Test Site on Omelek Island, Pacific Ocean's Marshall Islands
SpaceX engineers preparing Falcon 1 back in 2005

Amazon founder’s Blue Origin fails to deliver

After 22 successful launches, Blue Origin – the private space company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos – suffered its first failure last September.

The mission was crewless, but it was the same system used for launching people to the edge of space and also contained dozens of experiments.

After the New Shepard rocket’s booster failed, commentary on Blue Origin’s livestream remarked: “It appears we’ve experienced an anomaly with today’s flight. This wasn’t planned.”

This image provided by Blue Origin shows a rocket after a launch failure on Monday, Sept. 12, 2022. Jeff Bezos' rocket company has suffered its first launch failure. No one was aboard, only science experiments. The Blue Origin rocket veered off course over West Texas about 1 1/2 minutes after liftoff Monday.  
The Blue Origin rocket veered off course over west Texas about 90 seconds after launch

Russia no stranger to satellite mishaps

Russia is among the world’s most prolific spacefaring nations – its family of Soyuz rockets, for example, has been the most frequently used globally since its debut in 1966.

But even they are not immune to problems. Back in 2015, an advanced military satellite, reportedly designed to track enemy submarines, was lost after a Soyuz craft launched from Plesetsk in northwestern Russia.

Such incidents highlight how even the most experienced rocket-launching nations can run into difficulties.

Space is hard.

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