Virgin Orbit is still waiting for that elusive first success, but their high-quality telemetry data provides a level of transparency that can only come from constant communication between launch teams and HQ. This information-gathering process has helped Virgin Orbit pinpoint the issue with their first launch and ensure that future endeavors will be much more successful.
The launch of Virgin Orbit’s Skylon spaceplane went perfectly according to the company’s update, with all steps leading up to the issue occurring without mishap. However, this was not always the case; as Spaceflight Now reports, there have been a number of mission-ending failures in recent years.
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The fuel feeding system within the booster is designed to deliver a consistent, clean supply of fuel to the engine. However, if a filter is dislodged from its normal position, debris can enter the system and damage the engine.
Since the fuel pump was operating at a degraded efficiency level, the engine was starving for fuel and therefore operated at a significantly higher than rated engine temperature. Had the fuel pump been in proper working order, this could have resulted in serious engine damage.
Additionally, the components downstream and in the vicinity of the abnormally hot engine eventually malfunctioned, causing the second stage thrust to terminate prematurely. This ultimately caused the spacecraft to crash into a populated area.
The success of a space mission often comes down to the smallest details. If one part of the launch vehicle malfunctions, it can lead to tragic consequences. This is illustrated by the case of Apollo 14, which ceased sending signals from its spacecraft due to a Filtered Unseen Instrumentation Loss (FURL) on its Service Module oxygen tanks. Had this problem been detected earlier, it may have been possible to fix it and continue on with the mission as planned. However, because this issue was not located until after launch, the spacecraft and astronauts were lost. The takeaway from this is that even small errors can have big consequences and must be monitored closely throughout every stage of a space mission
As the fuel filter shimmied loose, sending data back to the engineers to suggested that there might be a problem with the design of the fuel filter, they knew that it was time to take a closer look at what had happened. This provided them with enough information to correct the issue, which in turn prevented another hurricane from forming downstream.
Virgin Orbit’s CEO, Dan Hart, believes that a new fuel filter is the solution to the company’s recent issue with engine shutdowns. Hart says that the filter is easy to replace and that Virgin Orbit plans on doing so as soon as possible. This will hopefully fix Virgin Orbit’s problem and keep its planes in the air.
This statement from the space organisation implies that they have a good idea of what caused the failed mission, and are working to fix it. They are also looking into any other potential causes in order to prevent future failure. This will likely involve developing new methods for data assessment and testing, as well as retraining staff on how to best use these tools.
The SpaceX team is looking forward to announcing the details of their commercial payload in a few weeks. They want to proceed cautiously, ensuring that all the components are working perfectly before launch.