London government suffers setback in its bid to build up a space launch industry on British soil

Oman loses its first satellite in failed inaugural liftoff from the UK

PHOTO/Virgin Orbit - LauncherOne has failed to inaugurate the London Government's sovereign ability to conduct space missions from UK-based airports and small take-off bases.

The Sultanate of Oman's first satellite has failed to get the necessary thrust to position itself in orbit around the Earth, falling less than halfway and plunging into the Atlantic Ocean, apparently between the Canary Islands and the coast of Africa. 

The loss of the satellite has dashed the hopes of Sultan Haitham bin Tariq - Oman's head of state, Minister of Defence and supreme commander of its armed forces - who, with the shoebox-sized observation satellite named Aman, had hoped to join the small club of Arab countries with platforms around the Earth. It was not to be, but a second chance is close at hand. 

In relation to Oman's space sector, the Spanish technology company Indra, as part of the Arab country's Vision 2040 plan, is setting up a satellite image processing and interpretation centre in the capital, Muscat, to provide services to the Ministries of Defence, Finance and the National Surveying Institute (NSA). 

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The geo-intelligence centre, aimed at supporting public policies, reinforcing security and Oman's economy, achieves this by "generating products and services of high added value from any observation satellite, mainly from the Sentinels of the European Copernicus constellation", explained Domingo Castro, Indra's Director of Defence and Space Systems. Indra's technicians have also developed software to receive, process and analyse images from the Aman satellite, which is now at the bottom of the cold Atlantic waters. 

Also submerged are the remains of eight other satellites, Aman's travelling companions, sent into Earth orbit by private entities and civilian and military governmental institutions in the United States and Great Britain. And what remains of the 21.3-metre-long LauncherOne transport system, the first rocket launched into outer space from British soil, is also underwater. 

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From Virgin and the UK's Richard Branson

The space mission was the fruit of cooperation between the UK Space Agency (UKSA), the Royal Air Force (RAF), the Cornish authorities and Virgin Orbit, a launch services company co-owned by the eccentric British billionaire businessman Richard Branson, 71.  

A combination of aircraft and rocket, the LauncherOne system was intended to inaugurate the London government's ambition for a sovereign capability to conduct space missions from airports and small launch bases based in Britain. But it has remained a failed attempt. However, UK Space Agency (UKSA) deputy chief executive Ian Annett has assured that "there will be more launches in the next 12 months". 

Nevertheless, despite the complete loss of the mission, the flight has been described by the UK authorities as a "major space milestone" for the UK, marking the birth of a new domestic space industry. If successful, London will have the full value chain of the space sector, from manufacturing satellites to positioning them in orbit from UK territory. 

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If the maiden flight had been successful, it would have given credibility to the aspirations of Cornwall's space airport, which aims to become the main hub in the UK for urgent, low-cost launches of small commercial satellites of up to 500 kilos. Even military satellites, to react to emergency situations. 

But this first attempt from the British Isles was a failure, the causes of which are still under investigation. The fact is that late on the night of 9 January, a modified Boeing 747 Jumbo four-engine jet christened "Cosmic Girl" from Virgin Orbit took off from Cornwall Airport in the far south of England to make the first unmanned space flight from the British Isles a reality. 

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London will try again

Attached under one of its wings was a two-stage LauncherOne launcher carrying nine small satellites, including Oman's, to be placed in orbit at an altitude of 500 kilometres.

On 10 January, at 00:08 Spanish peninsular time, when the 747 Jumbo was already at the launch site south of the Irish coast, Virgin Orbit technicians on board the aircraft received the order to release LauncherOne from an altitude of 35,000 feet - some 10.7 kilometres - and the actual launch took place. 

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The first propulsion stage engine - N3, with 327 kilo newtons of thrust - worked properly and burned for the full three minutes to describe an ascent trajectory. 

But something happened in the 22 kilo newton second stage N4 engine, which was supposed to propel the rocket for six minutes. However, LauncherOne began a descent trajectory when it was at an altitude of around 245,000 feet, just over 74 kilometres. 

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The accident in the early hours of 10 January was a serious setback for the new prime minister Rishi Sunak's government. And for Sultan Haitham bin Tariq and Richard Branson, who were confident of the mission's success, because of the five previous flights of LauncherOne in the United States, four - two in 2021 and two in 2022 - had been successful. A Commission of Investigation is working to determine the causes of the accident and to remedy them. 

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