LauncherOne rocket from failed Virgin Orbit launch spotted crashing to Earth (video)

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.

Related: Virgin Orbit rocket suffers anomaly during 1st launch from UK

Virgin Orbit's carrier plane, Cosmic Girl, at Spaceport Cornwall in England shortly before the Jan. 9, 2023 liftoff of the "Start Me Up" mission. (Image credit: Virgin Orbit)

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).

López is a collaborator with the Spanish Meteor Network (the Canary Islands are administered by Spain), which posted his video on Twitter (opens in new tab) and on YouTube (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).

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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).  

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Mike Wall
Senior Space Writer

Michael Wall is a Senior Space Writer with Space.com (opens in new tab) and joined the team in 2010. He primarily covers exoplanets, spaceflight and military space, but has been known to dabble in the space art beat. His book about the search for alien life, "Out There," was published on Nov. 13, 2018. Before becoming a science writer, Michael worked as a herpetologist and wildlife biologist. He has a Ph.D. in evolutionary biology from the University of Sydney, Australia, a bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. To find out what his latest project is, you can follow Michael on Twitter.