Tuesday 10 January 2023

The reentry of the second stage of LauncherOne "Start me Up" seen from Lanzarote

(footage by Ramón López,SPMN Lanzarote)

The footage above was filmed last night near 23:19 UTC (Jan 9) by one of the Spanish SPMN's meteor stations, that of Ramón López ("Stargazer Lanzarote") at Playa Blanca, on the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands,

It shows the sad ending of Virgin Orbit's failed "Start Me Up" launch (see my previous post). The moving object that can be seen burning up in the atmosphere in the left corner, is in fact the reentry of the NewtonFour upper stage from the LauncherOne rocket. This happened some 10 minutes after launch.

Below is a stack of the video frames (from the original video, kindly made available to me by the SPMN):


click to enlarge

The timing, viewing direction (W-NW), and direction of movement match well with the launch trajectory for the "Start me Up" mission, which passed about 380 km to the west of Lanzarote. 

The low sky elevation also shows that the object is in fact well below orbital altitude, consistent with reentry into the atmosphere. Had it been in the 555 km altitude orbit aimed for, it would have passed much higher in the sky as seen from Lanzarote, and been invisible, as that part of the orbit was not sun-illuminated. The fact that it is visible, alreadsy shows it was burning up by this time, creating the slow fireball visible in the video.

The event is too far south in latitude to be the first stage, which had a designated splash-down area some 400 km out of the coast of Portugal, 1000 km to the north of Lanzarote. 

Hence, it must be the second stage and attached payloads. The event starts around the time the last engine burn should have ended: the launch, at 10.6 km altitude just southwest or Ireland, was at 23:09 UT and the engine burns of both stages in total should have taken 9 minutes.

So, from the available evidence it looks like the second stage of the rocket underperformed. The fact that it reentered 1000 km to the south of the splashdown area for the first stage to me however suggests that it did initially fire.

As a result of the underperformance, the nature of which still has to be established, the rocket did not gain sufficient speed to bring the payloads to orbit: instead, after briefly reaching Space it went down again on a ballistic trajectory, reentering and disintegrating into the atmosphere - along with the payloads - some 500 or so km to the northwest of Lanzarote, roughly in the area indicated by the yellow ellipse in the map below.


click map to enlarge

The bearing of the point where the fireball disappears in the video, crosses the launch trajectory near 30.03 N, 17.28 W, some 360 km West-Noordwest of Lanzarote about halfway between the islands Madeira and La Palma.

The rocket stage and payloads most likely will have completely burned up during the reentry. If any parts survived at all, they are now on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

Virgin Orbit itself also points the finger to the second stage as the culprit of the failure to reach orbit.


UPDATE (12 Jan 2023):  according to Virgin Orbit, the cause of the failure was indeed a premature shutdown of the second stage. It happened during the first of two planned burns of this stage, at an altitude of 180 km.


Timothy Myers said...
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Florian said...

The island is Madeira, not Funchal (which is the name of its largest city). Apart from that, great work, as always :-)