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Virgin Orbit: 'Something malfunctioned' during demonstration launch

Cosmic girl took off, but LauncherOne didn't make it to orbit.

A Launcher One rocket detaching from its carrier plane.
Virgin Orbit

Richard Branson's space launch company, Virgin Orbit, didn't manage to launch a rocket into orbit from midair on Monday as hoped. 

The company's modified 747, Cosmic Girl, flew over the Pacific Ocean off California with the LauncherOne rocket attached to its belly and dropped it as planned, but then something went wrong. 

"We've confirmed a clean release from the aircraft. However, the mission terminated shortly into the flight," the company announced on Twitter Monday afternoon.

In a blog post Tuesday, the Virgin Orbit team described the issue as a "malfunction," which caused the booster stage engine to extinguish about 9 seconds after it was released. The rocket couldn't maintain controlled flight and so plunged into the ocean. Virgin Orbit says it didn't explode.

"We cannot yet say conclusively what the malfunction was or what caused it, but we feel confident we have sufficient data to determine that as we continue through the rigorous investigation we've already begun."

LauncherOne is Virgin Orbit's foray into the commercial satellite launch market, offering an alternative to traditional vertical launch options. The founders of competing companies like SpaceX and Rocket Lab were quick to offer encouragement. 

The blog post also detailed the gamut of data obtained during the unsuccessful attempt to reach orbit, including testing out some of the systems employed by LauncherOne. 

"Sorry to hear that. Orbit is hard. Took us four attempts with Falcon 1," SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted.

Virgin was quick to indicate it intends to make another attempt soon, sharing photos of its second rocket, which it hopes to test soon.