Wednesday, January 18, 2023

No Final Words on Both ABL and Virgin Orbit Failures

Last Monday and Tuesday were bad days in the space industry, as you'll remember.  On Monday, Virgin Orbit's attempt to be the first launch from Europe to reach orbit failed well into the mission.  On Tuesday, ABL Space's first launch ever failed seconds after liftoff from the Pacific Spaceport Complex-Alaska.  The investigations began immediately, and while progress has been made, neither company has said they've completed investigations and are fixing any problems that turned up.

Last week, Virgin Orbit reported that the trouble began with a second stage malfunction well after the Launcher One booster was dropped.  

“Later in the mission, at an altitude of approximately 180 km, the upper stage experienced an anomaly. This anomaly prematurely ended the first burn of the upper stage,” the company stated. The company did not disclose additional details about the anomaly.

Observers had speculated that some sort of issue with the upper stage caused the failure, although issues with the telemetry displayed during the launch webcast, such as spurious data, made it difficult to narrow down the nature of the problem or its timing.

SpaceNews (previous link) brings up the fact that Virgin Orbit stated in their Twitter live feed that they had achieved orbit but then had to retract that. I don't see the point of that.  They corrected their mistake quickly, and since one of the issues they mention is difficulties with telemetry (that even I commented on), it's easy to think they had information that was misleading or completely wrong. 

Virgin has said that they believe the reason will be understood soon and have announced their Return to Flight launch would be from Mojave Air and Space Port in California, the site where all five previous missions began. The rocket for that mission is going through final integration and checkout.  

I don't really understand the organizational difference between Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic, their suborbital space tourism business, but they are apparently separate companies.  Virgin Galactic announced a reorganization with intent to resume their suborbital flights in the 2nd quarter of this year. 

ABL's launch failure occurred seconds into flight, but in an update today reported they have telemetry and other clues pointing toward a fire in the RS1 launcher's avionics. 

The RS1's first stage "suffered a complete loss of power" 10.87 seconds after liftoff, ABL explained in a Twitter update on Wednesday (Jan. 18). The rocket continued to ascend for another 2.63 seconds, reaching a maximum altitude of 761 feet (232 meters) but then fell back to Earth, impacting about 60 feet (18 m) east of its launch pad.

At only 10.87 seconds into the flight the vehicle was almost completely loaded with propellant and the resulting explosions and fires did a lot of damage. 

"Approximately 95% of the vehicle total propellant mass was still onboard, creating an energetic explosion and overpressure wave that caused damage to nearby equipment and facilities," the company wrote in the update. The damaged gear included communications equipment at the pad, as well as fuel and water storage tanks.

The crash scattered debris over an area with a radius of 0.25 miles (0.40 kilometers) and sparked a fire that destroyed an ABL fabric hangar and much of the "integration equipment" it harbored, ABL wrote in the update.

Thankfully, no one was injured.  Their report goes on to say that they noted “some visual evidence of fire or smoke near the vehicle QD and the engine bay after liftoff,” where QD seems to refer to the Quick Disconnect connectors that you regularly see dropping from many launch vehicles as they start moving.  They go on to say in the few seconds before the vehicle shut down that “we saw off-nominal pressure spikes and rises in temperature in the Stage 1 aft cavity a few seconds after liftoff.”

"Shortly before power loss, a handful of sensors began dropping out sequentially," the update continues. "This evidence suggests that an unwanted fire spread to our avionics system, causing a system-wide failure."

ABL teams have already begun work on the launch facility to get it ready for the next attempt at flight, and the next launch vehicle (serial no. 2) is reported "largely complete and commissioned" for the next attempt. They add it's too soon to speculate on when the next mission will fly. 

ABL RS1 SN1, November '22.


  1. I don't think anybody understands fully the inter-relations among the companies under the Virgin Group umbrella. There 28 currently-owned, and 56 previously-owned entities. See Wiki for the list ;-)

  2. "It was caused by climate change."™