Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit company has tried unsuccessfully to launch a rocket over the Pacific Ocean.
The booster was released from under the wing of one of the UK entrepreneur’s old jumbos which had been specially converted for the task.
The rocket should have ignited its engine seconds later but engineers had to terminate the flight.
Virgin Orbit’s goal is to try to capture a share of the emerging market for the launch of small satellites.
It’s not clear at this stage what went wrong but the firm had warned beforehand that the chances of success might be in the region of 50:50.
The history of rocketry shows that maiden outings very often encounter technical problems.
The firm is sure to be back for another attempt pretty soon – depending on the outcome of the post-mission analysis.
Engineers already have a second rocket built at Orbit’s Long Beach factory in California.
Most publicity about Sir Richard space activities has focussed on the tourist plane he is developing to take fare-paying passengers on joy rides above the atmosphere.
His satellite-launch venture, however, is entirely separate.
Orbit is chasing the growing interest in small spacecraft that are being designed for telecommunications and Earth observation.
New manufacturing techniques, often involving “off-the-shelf” components from the consumer electronics industry, mean these satellites can now be turned out for a fraction of their historic cost. But they need matching inexpensive means of getting into space – and the air-launched system from Virgin Orbit is intended to meet this demand.
Sunday’s flight illustrated the basic launch concept.
The 747, known as Cosmic Girl, left Mojave Air and Space Port to the north of Los Angeles shortly before midday Pacific time (19:00 GMT / 20:00 BST), carrying the rocket, dubbed LauncherOne, under its left wing.
At 35,000ft (10km), just west of the Channel Islands, the jet unlatched the liquid-fuelled booster to let it go into freefall.
LauncherOne was supposed to ignite its Newton Three engine four seconds later and make the climb to orbit. But it clearly didn’t get very far. We’re still waiting to hear precisely what happened. The only information available at the moment comes from the company’s Twitter feed: “The mission terminated shortly into the flight. Cosmic Girl and our flight crew are safe and returning to base.”
More updates soon.