Virgin Orbit shutdown: What does company failure mean for UK spaceports?
Virgin Orbit, a space start-up founded by UK entrepreneur Richard Branson, has been shut down. Here’s what you need to know.
Why has Virgin Orbit shut down?
The firm’s troubles began with a failed mission in January, which was due to be the first-ever orbital launch from the UK. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket had been carrying nine satellites, including hardware for the US National Reconnaissance Office, but failed to reach orbit.
This setback – despite coming after a string of successful launches – caused its share price to fall, making it impossible for the company to secure more funding, and it started to suffer cash-flow problems. The company had never reached profitability.
Eventually, it was forced to lay off 85 per cent of its staff – around 675 people – in March. The company limped on with a small team, looking at various options to remain afloat. But this effort ultimately failed and the company has now filed for bankruptcy, sold its assets and shut down for good.
The closure marks a rapid descent for a company that publicly listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange late in 2021 with a valuation of $3.7 billion.
Why did Virgin Orbit’s UK launch fail?
The company’s modified 747-400 jet Cosmic Girl took off from Spaceport Cornwall carrying the LauncherOne rocket under its wing. Once airborne, the rocket dropped away to fire its first stage and successfully accelerated to about 12,900 kilometres per hour. When the second stage kicked in, it reached 28,000 kilometres per hour, but within minutes the launcher “suffered an anomaly” and had to abort.
Last month, the company announced that the culprit, which became dislodged and made its way into the Newton-4 upper-stage engine, was a fuel filter – a $100 part. Virgin Orbit said that a fix had been found and that it was being built into the next rocket – which we now know the company will never launch.
What will happen to its equipment?
Rival launch company Rocket Lab has bought Virgin Orbit’s headquarters, rocket factory and equipment for a reported $16.1 million. Cosmic Girl has been sold to Stratolaunch Systems, maker of the world’s largest aircraft – itself designed to launch rockets – for only $17 million. Space company Launcher bought Virgin Orbit’s launch site in the Mojave desert, California.
In all, Virgin Orbit’s assets brought in just $36.4 million – around 1 per cent of its previous valuation. None of the three companies buying assets responded to New Scientist’s request for comment.
A statement from Virgin Orbit said: “Virgin Orbit’s legacy in the space industry will forever be remembered.”
What does this mean for Virgin Galactic?
Virgin Galactic is a separate company to Virgin Orbit, the latter being a 2017 spin-out from the former. While Orbit was focused on launching small satellites, Galactic’s aim is providing space tourism flights using its craft SpaceShipTwo, which itself launches from a larger airplane mid-flight.
Both are part-owned by Richard Branson, and Virgin Galactic will continue to operate unaffected. The company is planning the final test flight of its VSS Unity craft on 25 May, before a first commercial launch carrying space tourists next month. Virgin Galactic didn’t respond to a request for interview, but investors seem confident that a successful flight will mean the company can start carrying out flights that customers have already bought and paid for.
What does this mean for UK space launches?
The UK Space Agency is backing 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 took off.
Currently, Spaceport Cornwall still lists the now defunct Virgin Orbit as its sole customer, but says that “other launch operators may also begin launching”. However, it has no vertical launch facilities and can only support companies that launch rockets hung under aircraft. SaxaVord Spaceport is working towards its first launch, and Space Hub Sutherland is under construction.