UK satellite launch fails after 'anomaly'

Britain's hopes of becoming a leading destination for the launch of small satellites remain intact despite the failure of the first mission, the country's business minister Grant Shapps says.

Hours after the plan to launch nine satellites ended when Virgin Orbit's rocket suffered an anomaly that prevented it from reaching orbit, Shapps said on Tuesday another attempt would follow.

"Space is difficult," he told Sky News.

"The great thing about this technology is that no one was harmed. The pilots came back in the aircraft.

"It didn't work. No doubt they'll pick themselves up, dust themselves off and they'll go again."

Virgin Orbit's chief executive Dan Hart said in a statement the group would take corrective actions and hoped to return to orbit as soon as a full investigation had been completed.

The rocket was successfully released over the Atlantic from a Boeing 747 that took off from Newquay airport in western England.

The rocket reached 17,703 kilometres per hour before its system failed.

It is the latest in a series of setbacks for European-based space missions.

An Italian-built Vega-C rocket mission failed after lift-off from French Guiana in late December and the rockets have since been grounded, while the European Space Agency's Ariane 6 launcher for big satellites has been delayed.

The latest mission had been heralded as a historic first for Britain and Europe as it would have been the first time satellites had been sent into orbit from western Europe.

The UK Space Agency had described the Cornish mission as a moment of national pride for Britain's growing space industry while Britain's minister for science, George Freeman, told Reuters at the spaceport that it was a "historic moment".

"Lots and lots of things have been achieved and yet the milestone is obviously disappointing," Space Agency commercial space director Matt Archer said.

"But we will continue to press on and we will get there in the end."

Shapps said he remained hopeful for the Newquay site as well as other potential spaceports in Britain.

"There's another six locations in the UK, including a couple in Scotland, in Wales, so there's a big chunk of money and export and jobs to be had from international space," he said.

For Virgin Orbit, part-owned by British billionaire Richard Branson, it is the second failure since its first launch in 2020.

The company has had four successful missions but all from its base in the United States.