It’s happened before, but it never gets any less dumbfounding when a huge, expensive operation is derailed by the failure of a cheap, seemingly insignificant part.
In the latest case of “small item causes huge problem,” Virgin Orbit has narrowed down the possible causes for its launch failure last month and zeroed in on a filter. According to SpaceNews, Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said that, while it’s still too soon to know for sure, it looks like the failed LauncherOne rocket mission in January was caused by a filter falling out of place.
Hart said the filter was in place when Virgin Orbit assembled the rocket but was missing by the time the second stage engine went off, leading his company to believe that it became “dislodged” and caused “mischief downstream.”
“This is like a $100 part that took us out,” he said.
Suffice to say, Virgin Orbit will no longer be using that filter during its next LauncherOne flight, which will take place at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California.
Virgin Orbit uses a modified jumbo jet to provide a mobile launchpad for rockets designed to deliver satellites into orbit. The company was attempting its first international launch on January 9th when it experienced an “anomaly.” The rocket, which was carrying nine small satellites, was able to launch but couldn’t reach orbit.
A few days after the failed launch, Virgin Orbit revealed that the problem occurred when the rocket’s upper stage prematurely ended its first burn.
Despite the setback, Virgin Orbit has previously completed successful launches from California on multiple occasions. The company, which was founded in 2017 by Richard Branson, seeks to provide a more flexible and less expensive way to put satellites in orbit. The company has already delivered commercial, civil, national security, and international satellites into orbit via its LauncherOne rockets, which are designed and manufactured in Long Beach.