Despite millions of dollars being poured into rocket technology and some of the best minds on our planet trying to get these vehicles out of Earth’s orbit, launch expeditions into space often seem to go spectacularly wrong.
That was the case this week for Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne, the UK’s first rocket launched into space. experiencing an “anomaly” After taking off from an airport on the Cornish coast on Monday.
The frustration with the crowd gathered on the field can only be compared to the disappointment that the team at Virgin Orbit probably felt, whose ambitions were temporarily suppressed by the failure.
But anyone keeping an eye on space launches wouldn’t be too surprised at the British rocket’s failure.
Last year, NASA’s Artemis 1 – An unmanned test mission leaving Earth for a series of explorations on the Moon and Mars – failed to launch twice due to a series of technical issues.
First, the initial launch was canceled in late August after technicians discovered a series of minor hydrogen leaks in the rocket. Five days later, a fuel leak was discovered while tanking. Then a US Space Force radar station crashed.
Artemis 1 was finally released in mid-November, three months behind schedule, and after what seemed like a long wait – definitely for those working on the project.
So why are space launches so vulnerable to failure? In short, because rocket science actually turned out to be as difficult as we thought.
‘Space does not forgive’
“Things can go wrong with rocket engines,” said Dr Ranjan Vepa, a reader in the Queen Mary Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of London.
While the giant blast that launches a rocket from the ground isn’t such a complicated operation, anything that follows it, including controlling that blast, is extremely difficult.
“Most of the reasons [for a failure] it has to do with burning,” said Vepa. “In combustion, you will experience instability and basically failure. This is used in internal combustion engines, rocket engines, etc. It could be quite a lot”.
“Things can go wrong with combustion for various reasons,” he explained.
“For example, the space shuttle often fails for very simple reasons – hydraulic system imbalances, hydraulic systems completely clogged by dirt,” he added. “Rocket engines are very complex machines and the chances of failure are very high.”
More than half a century after the Space Age, launching rockets is more risky than it has ever been. The biggest mistake we can make is to think it isn’t.
“People have to have good designers to explore possibilities. [for failure] and make sure it doesn’t happen. Unfortunately, people are not fully aware of how things can go wrong. If anything can go wrong, it will: Murphy’s Law,” said Vepa with a laugh.
“Millions of money flowing there doesn’t mean everything will be okay,” aerospace engineer and analyst Karan Mehta told Euronews Next.
“Space is unforgiving and unyielding – even the smallest manufacturing faults can turn into major failures that can cause system-wide failures,” he added.
“That’s why there’s redundancy built into it, but sometimes there can’t be redundancy for everything”.
Mehta said experts and technicians should think about “really everything” before launching into space.
“You even have to think about how to standardize certain parts on the ship so that they can be used anywhere – from what the temperature of the fuel will be during loading to the stage 0 launch pad.”
But every failure brings us closer to making rocket launches safer and more reliable. Vepa says that most major launches follow a step-by-step checklist to see if everything is in order.
“The best way to avoid failure is to have a checklist and make sure you have everything checked out,” he explained.
“During the design phase, they need to design things like the combustion chamber, check that the resonant frequency does not match possible distortions, etc. They have to make sure there is no flame imbalance. By checking all this, you can avoid failure”.