The "horizontal launch" mission had left Newquay, and the rocket, called LauncherOne, was carried by a modified Boeing 747 called "Cosmic Girl" before being released over the Atlantic Ocean.
"We appear to have an anomaly that has prevented us from reaching orbit," the company said in a statement. "We are evaluating the information."
Virgin Orbit's Failure: Another Setback for European Space Ambitions
The failure is a setback for European space ambitions, coming after an Italian-built Vega-C rocket failed after lift-off from French Guiana in December. Europe has also seen delays with its key Ariane 6 launcher, blocked access to Russian Soyuz rockets due to the war in Ukraine, and now a failure of a showcase launch for the burgeoning small launcher industry.
Virgin Orbit had initially said that LauncherOne had reached earth orbit, a tweet that was later deleted. The UK government and other organizations will now investigate the company. Virgin Orbit is part-owned by British billionaire Richard Branson and had planned to deploy nine small satellites into lower Earth orbit in its first mission outside the United States.
The failure also raises questions about the future of small satellite launches and the development of multiple potential micro launch sites, including two vertical launchpads in Scotland, as the UK's space industry continues to grow.