An observer captured the fiery return to Earth of a failed Virgin Orbit rocket on Monday evening (Jan. 9).
That rocket was the first stage of Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne vehicle, which lifted off from England's Spaceport Cornwall beneath the wing of the company's Cosmic Girl carrier plane at 5:02 p.m. EST (2202 GMT) on Monday.
The Virgin Orbit mission, called "Start Me Up" after the famous 1981 Rolling Stones song, aimed to be the first ever to reach orbit from the United Kingdom (though Cosmic Girl actually dropped LauncherOne over the Atlantic Ocean off the southwest coast of Ireland). It wasn't to be, however; the 70-foot-long (21 meters) LauncherOne suffered an anomaly and failed to reach orbit, resulting in the loss of nine small satellites.
LauncherOne's first stage came crashing back to Earth on Monday at 6:18 p.m. EST (2318 GMT). The reentry created a dramatic fireball that was captured on video from Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa, by observer Ramón López (opens in new tab).
There's little doubt that the video does indeed show the final moments of the LauncherOne first stage, said Netherlands-based scientist and satellite tracker Marco Langbroek.
"The position of the sighting, sky location (low west-northwest as seen from Lanzarote) and direction of movement of the reentering object, as well as time, match well with the launch trajectory," Langbroek tweeted on Tuesday morning (opens in new tab).
2/3The position of the sigthing, sky location (low west-northwest as seen from Lanzarotte) and direction of movement of the reentering object, as well as time, match well with the launch trajectory. The reentry was over the area indicated by the yellow oval. pic.twitter.com/Qu03V6MEOGJanuary 10, 2023
Virgin Orbit was riding a streak of four consecutive launch successes heading into "Start Me Up." The company had previously suffered just one failure, on its first-ever orbital test flight in May 2020.
Virgin Orbit traced the case of that failure to a ruptured fuel line in the rocket's first stage. It's too soon to tell what caused the "Start Me Up" anomaly; Virgin Orbit and the U.K. Space Agency have launched an investigation to get to the bottom of it.
"We will work tirelessly to understand the nature of the failure, make corrective actions and return to orbit as soon as we have completed a full investigation and mission assurance process," Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said a postlaunch statement.
Mike Wall is the author of "Out There (opens in new tab)" (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or on Facebook (opens in new tab).