Virgin Orbit elaborates on potential cause of LauncherOne failure

WASHINGTON – Virgin Orbit provided additional details about the likely cause of LauncherOne’s failure last month, but did not estimate when the vehicle will be ready to return to flight.

In a Feb. 14 statement, the company elaborated on comments made a week earlier by its chief executive, Dan Hart, who said at the SmallSat Symposium on Feb. 7 that a filter in the rocket’s second-stage propulsion system dislodged “and caused downstream damage” that led to a premature engine shutdown before the rocket reached orbit.

Virgin Orbit said the NewtonFour second-stage engine’s fuel filter was displaced from its normal position. The fuel pump downstream of this filter “operated at a degraded level of efficiency,” reducing the amount of fuel reaching the engine. This, in turn, caused the engine to operate at a higher than rated temperature.

The company said components “downstream and nearby” of the overheated engine malfunctioned, which led to the engine’s premature shutdown.

In the statement, Virgin Orbit noted that the investigation into the January 9 launch failure is ongoing. “All potentially credible scenarios, including the one described above, are being investigated,” the company said. “Numerous trials are underway to support the investigation and help lead to definitive conclusions.”

The company did not disclose when it expected the investigation to be completed or when it would be ready to attempt another launch. He said “all credible causes of failure will be addressed” before the next launch, which will take place at Mojave Air and Space Port in California for an unnamed commercial customer.

“Our investigation is not yet complete; the team is hard at work and we will pursue the cause and contributors wherever the system review takes us,” Hart said in the statement. “However, with many clear clues from the extensive data evaluation now understood, we are modifying our next rocket with a more robust filter and are looking broadly to ensure that all credible contributors to mission failure are rooted out and addressed.”

The company, which is publicly traded on Nasdaq, has not announced when it will report its fourth-quarter 2022 and full-year financial results. Virgin Orbit shares closed down nearly 2% at $1.58 on Feb. 14, but rose in after-hours trading after the company released the statement on the status of the crash investigation.

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