How Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit flop is the latest UK space disaster after Beagle 2 Mars lander
Virgin Orbit’s satellite launch ended in failure for Richard Branson yesterday and in its wake MailOnline looked back at Britain’s last space disaster Beagle 2 and cancelled programmes – but children have launched a pasty to the edge of beyond.
If successful, the historic launch from Newquay, Cornwall would have been the first ever satellite launched into orbit from British soil – but an ‘anomaly’ with the LauncherOne rocket prevented the satellites it was carrying from reaching orbit.
A repurposed 747 jumbo jet – named Cosmic Girl by Virgin – took off from Newquay Airport at 10.02pm on Monday, which was carrying the rocket which would deposit its payload in a low Earth orbit – but LauncherOne was unable to reach the right altitude to maintain an orbit.
British-led space projects have not fared well historically, from promising space programmes being cancelled to the ambitious search for life on Mars ending badly.
Professor Colin Pillinger (1943-2014), poses with a model of Beagle 2 at the Lander Operations Planning Centre in Milton Keynes
Virgin Orbit’s 70ft rocket was successfully launched from the wing of a modified 747 jumbo jet, only to suffer an ‘anomaly’ as it accelerated to space at 11,000mph, causing a mission failure
Artists impression issued by the European Space Agency in 2002 showing how the Beagle 2 landing craft may have looked once it landed on Mars
Cornwall’s only successful space launch to date – when schoolkids launched a PASTY to the edge of space
The UK’s last major foray into space in 2003, £50m the Mars lander Beagle 2 ended in disaster leading to the spacecraft going missing for 12 years – only to be found eight months after the project lead’s death.
Beagle 2 – named after Charles Darwin’s HMS Beagle – was conceived of by Open University Professor Colin Pillinger with colleagues at Leicester University in 1997 in an ambitious quest to search for the possibility of life on the red planet.
The mission then absorbed six years of the charismatic scientist’s life as he attempted to raise funds and plan the mission – which was part of the European Space Agency’s Mars Express.
Beagle 2 landed on Mars on Christmas Day 2003 at 2:54am GMT after the lander left the ‘mothership’ – but the nine-note call signal composed by Britpop band Blur was never received by the British scientists running the mission.
Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank failed to pick up a signal from Beagle 2 but the team said they were ‘still hopeful’ of finding a successful return signal.
Attempts were made throughout January and February 2004 to contact the probe via Mars Express, but failed.
On December 20, 2005, Professor Pillinger released processed images from the Mars Global Surveyor suggesting that Beagle 2 came down in a crater at the landing site. But later images showed the crater empty and the Mars lander was thought lost.
It was initially thought that the parachutes, which had not been previously tested, or the airbags designed to cushion its impact on the surface had failed.
Professor Pillinger and his team were called ‘out of their depth’ in an ESA report from 2005 but he always maintained that he believed the Beagle 2 lander had made it safely to the surface of the red planet in the face of often intense criticism.
But Nasa scientists operating the HiRise camera on their Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which was circling red planet, discovered the lander in 12 years after it went missing in 2015 – but eight months after Professor Pillinger had sadly died.
Images taken by a Nasa spacecraft in orbit around the red planet revealed that the Beagle 2 spacecraft touched down on the Martian surface and partially deployed its solar panels and sensors.
Professor Pillinger answers questions during a news conference in London, January 4, 2004, after the Beagle 2 had not sent a signal to Earth in the weeks since Christmas
Images taken by Nasa’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft have finally located the Beagle 2 probe
The fuzzy bright shape found just three miles from Beagle 2’s intended landing site on Mars matches that of the space probe if only some of its solar panels had deployed properly, as can be seen in the diagram above
The UK Space Agency said it appeared the probe’s parachutes had deployed during the descent through the Martian atmosphere on Christmas Day in 2003.
However, the probe only managed to partially open its solar panels and array of sensors that were carried on board the spacecraft, which may be why scientists had been unable to receive contact from the spacecraft.
It is thought that a burst airbag, which was designed to cushion the probe’s impact on the surface, may have prevented the probe from unfurling properly.
The UK Space Agency said the Entry, Descent and Landing (EDL) sequence for Beagle 2 worked and the lander did safely touchdown.
The engineers and scientists behind the mission were criticised after losing contact with the £66 million space probe.
It was said at the time that insufficient testing had been carried out on the probe and engineers had rushed to get it finished in time.
Beagle 2 was the UK’s first major reentry into space after the cancellation of space programmes which resulted in the first and only successful satellite launched into orbit from a British rocket in the early 1970s.
Black Arrow rocket mounted vertically inside the engine test stand overlooking the Needles, Isle of Wight
The British built Black Arrow rocket – which was tested on the Isle of White – lifted the Prospero research satellite into orbit on October 28, 1971 from the Woomera rocket range in South Australia.
The satellite remained operational for decades after – but despite the programmes success, Conservative Minister for Aerospace Sir Frederick Corfield cancelled the promising programme as it was deemed too expensive.
And a proposed advanced rocket – Black Prince – which would have been able to send heavier payloads into space by using the Black Arrow as one of its stages also never saw the light of day.
But all hope is not lost for the future of British spaceflight, as a group of schoolchildren and a bakery outdid Virgin Orbit by blasting a Cornish pasty to the edge of space in 2017, showing Cornwall can launch successful space missions.
A group of schoolchildren and a bakers outdid Virgin Orbit by blasting a Cornish pasty (pictured) to the edge of space in 2017, showing Cornwall can launch successful space missions
The pasty (pictured) was attached to a weather balloon and was suspended for 93 minutes before freezing temperatures popped the balloon and it fell back to earth on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall
It was attached to a weather balloon and was suspended for 93 minutes before freezing temperatures popped the balloon and it fell back to earth on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall.
It had been frozen through when it was found and tasted by Becci Blackburn, of Rowe’s Cornish Bakers and the then headteacher Andrew Martin of Hayle Community School.
The company had set up the project in 2017 collaboration with the school, that has now been renamed Hayle Academy, as part of an ongoing science project.
At the time Becci said: ‘We are over the moon to have successfully pulled this stunt off in celebration of the traditional Cornish pasty and our 68 years of baking heritage.
‘We were delighted to involve Hayle Community School in this pasty space stunt.
‘Experiencing a weather balloon launching a tasty, iconic, Cornish pasty into space is something we hope the students will remember for a long time.
TIMELINE: HOW VIRGIN’S CORNWALL SPACE LAUNCH WENT WRONG ON MONDAY
22:02 GMT: Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl space plane takes off from Spaceport Cornwall
23:10 GMT: After reaching its launch zone just off the coast of Ireland, Cosmic Girl deploys the rocket attached to its belly
23:11 GMT: The rocket heads past Portugal as it ascends to space
23:18 GMT: Virgin appears to suggest on Twitter that the mission has succeeded in reaching orbit
23:50 GMT: But it then emerges that an ‘anomaly’ has occurred which prevented the rocket from deploying its payload of satellites into orbit
23:55 GMT: Cosmic Girl returns to Cornwall Spaceport as disheartened spectators watch on
‘It may even inspire them to work in the space industry or boost their interest in science.’
Speaking at the time, Mr Martin, who is no longer at the school, added: ‘Our students and teachers work incredibly hard in the classroom, so it’s been brilliant to bring their science lessons to life like this.’
Since last night’s failure, bosses at Cornwall’s Spaceport have vowed to keep pushing to achieve their dreams. In the build-up it said it had looked set to make history as ‘host of the UK’s first ever space launch.’
But it ended in failure after an ‘anomaly’ prevented the LauncherOne rocket from reaching orbit and releasing its cluster of satellites.
A Boeing 747 jumbo jet, otherwise known as ‘Cosmic Girl’ did successfully take off from the Spaceport at Newquay Airport, cruising up to 35,000ft after around an hour of flying.
It released the 24-tonne LauncherOne rocket – carrying a total of nine satellites from seven civilian and defence customers as planned.
But during the final stage of the launch the rocket had not burnt enough fuel to reach the right altitude, resulting in LauncherOne never reaching orbit and thus not releasing the satellites.
As a result, it burned up on re-entry into the atmosphere, and the mission was sadly deemed a failure.
LauncherOne never reached its target altitude to release a payload of nine satellites into orbit and was ultimately lost — either burning up in the Earth’s atmosphere or breaking apart over the north Atlantic
Devastating: Britain’s historic first ever orbital space launch on UK soil dramatically failed last night, after Virgin Orbit revealed that an ‘anomaly’ had prevented its rocket from reaching orbit. Pictured is the moment the rocket ignited
Melissa Thorpe, head of Spaceport Cornwall, described the incident as ‘gutting’.
She added: ‘It hasn’t gone exactly to plan but we’ve done everything that we said we were going to do at Spaceport.
‘It’s just absolutely devastating, and we put our hearts and soul into this – it’s such a personal journey for me as well, and my family were here, so it’s pretty rough.
‘I feel okay, and I think it will just be a few days of letting it sink in a little bit. But like I said, I’m just so happy everybody is safe, and the flight crew got off okay.’