After more than seven years of development, testing, and preparation, Virgin Orbit reached an important moment on Monday—dropping and igniting its LauncherOne rocket over the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately, shortly after ignition an "anomaly" occurred, the company said.
"LauncherOne maintained stability after release, and we ignited our first stage engine, NewtonThree," the company stated on Twitter. "An anomaly then occurred early in first stage flight. We'll learn more as our engineers analyze the mountain of data we collected today."
This was the company's first attempt to ignite LauncherOne. Previously, it had strapped the liquid-fueled rocket to its modified 747 aircraft, and flown out over the Pacific Ocean, but not released the booster from beneath the plane's wing.
After Monday's launch attempt the crew on board the 747 and a chase plane safely made it back to the Mojave Air & Space Port without harm. The company stressed that it now has plenty of data to dig into, and is "eager" to get on to its next flight.
In an interview, the company's vice president of special projects, Will Pomerantz, said the rocket dropped from the plane as intended, and in a controlled manner. The engine also ignited when and how they expected—a real challenge for a mid-air, liquid fueled rocket. "That is the biggest single technical risk of the program retired," Pomerantz said.
After ignition, the engine burned for "a couple" of seconds before something happened with the booster. The launch team is already reviewing data to learn whether this was a hardware, software, or some other type of issue. "Weve got some good reasons for optimism based upon our very early looks at the data," Pomerantz said.