Why did Virgin Orbit shut down and what will happen to UK spaceports?
Virgin Orbit, a new space company founded by British businessman Richard Branson, has been shut down. This is what you need to know.
Why has Virgin Orbit closed?
The company’s problems began with a failed mission in January, which was to be the first orbital launch from the UK. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket was carrying nine satellites, including hardware for the US National Reconnaissance Office, but failed to reach orbit.
This setback, even though it came after a series of successful launches, caused its share price to fall, making it impossible for the company to raise more funding and it began to suffer from cash flow problems. The company had never reached profitability.
Ultimately, it was forced to lay off 85 percent of its staff, about 675 people, in March. The company was limping along with a small team, looking at various options to stay afloat. But this effort ultimately failed, and the company has now filed for bankruptcy, sold its assets, and gone out of business for good.
The closing marks a rapid decline for a company that was publicly listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange at the end of 2021 with a valuation of $3.7 billion.
Why did Virgin Orbit’s UK launch fail?
The company’s modified Cosmic Girl 747-400 jet lifted off from the Cornish spaceport with the LauncherOne rocket under its wing. Once airborne, the rocket descended to fire its first stage and successfully accelerated to around 8,000 miles per hour. When the second stage was launched, it reached 28,000 kilometers per hour, but after a few minutes the launcher “suffered an anomaly” and had to abort.
Last month, the company announced that the culprit, which broke off and entered the Newton-4 upper stage engine, was a fuel filter, a $100 part. Virgin Orbit said a solution had been found and was being integrated into the next rocket, which we now know the company will never launch.
What will happen to your team?
Rival launch company Rocket Lab bought Virgin Orbit’s headquarters, rocket factory and equipment for $16.1 million. Cosmic Girl was sold to Stratolaunch Systems, maker of the world’s largest aircraft designed to launch rockets, for just $17 million. The space company Launcher has purchased the Virgin Orbit launch site in the Mojave desert, California.
In total, Virgin Orbit’s assets brought in just $36.4 million, about 1 percent of their previous valuation. None of the three companies that bought assets responded to new scientist comment request.
A Virgin Orbit statement said: “Virgin Orbit’s legacy in the space industry will be forever remembered.”
What does this mean for Virgin Galactic?
Virgin Galactic is a separate company from Virgin Orbit, the latter being a 2017 spin-out of the former. While Orbit focused on launching small satellites, Galactic’s goal is to provide space tourism flights using its SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, which itself launches from a larger aircraft mid-flight.
Both are partially owned by Richard Branson, and Virgin Galactic will continue to operate unaffected. The company is planning the final test flight of its VSS Unity spacecraft on May 25, ahead of a first commercial launch with space tourists next month. Virgin Galactic did not respond to a request for an interview, but investors seem confident that a successful flight will mean the company can start flying flights that customers have already bought and paid for.
What does this mean for UK space launches?
The UK Space Agency is supporting three spaceports in the UK: SaxaVord Spaceport in the Shetland Islands, Space Hub Sutherland in Scotland and Spaceport Cornwall, from where Virgin Orbit’s failed January mission lifted off.
Spaceport Cornwall currently still lists the now-defunct Virgin Orbit as its only customer, but says “other launch operators may also start launching.” However, it does not have vertical launch facilities and can only support companies that launch rockets suspended below aircraft. SaxaVord Spaceport is working towards its first launch and Space Hub Sutherland is under construction.