Virgin Orbit pauses operations amid financial troubles

Virgin Orbit’s carrier aircraft, a modified Boeing 747 jumbo jet, takes off from Mojave Air and Space Port in California with a LauncherOne rocket under its left wing. Credit: Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit announced last week it is pausing operations after sustained financial losses, furloughing most of the company’s approximately 750 employees as officials seek funding to keep the small satellite launch provider afloat.

The Long Beach, California-based company confirmed the pause in operations, first reported by CNBC, in a statement March 15. Virgin Orbit reportedly furloughed most of its staff, bringing to a halt work in the company’s Long Beach factory, where engineers and technicians were manufacturing and testing hardware for multiple rockets for future missions.

“Virgin Orbit is initiating a company-wide operational pause, effective March 16, 2023, and anticipates providing an update on go-forward operations in the coming weeks,” the company said.

Founded by billionaire Richard Branson, Virgin Orbit flew six missions with its air-launched rocket, called LauncherOne, released from the wing of a modified Boeing 747 carrier aircraft. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne vehicle is the first air-launched, liquid-fueled rocket, stretching 70 feet (21 meters) long with the ability to place a payload of up to 660 pounds (300 kilograms) into a polar sun-synchronous orbit more than 300 miles (500 kilometers) above Earth.

Virgin Orbit competes in a segment of the commercial launch market populated by numerous other small launch companies. Rocket Lab, Firefly Aerospace, and Astra have successfully put satellites into orbit with their modest-size launch vehicles, while other companies like Relativity Space and ABL Space Systems are in advanced stages of development.

The first test launch of the LauncherOne rocket in May 2020 ended a few seconds after ignition of its main engine, following release from the 747 carrier jet over the Pacific Ocean west of Los Angeles. The first stage engine shut off prematurely, and engineers traced the problem to a break in a propellant feed line.

Virgin Orbit racked up four successful missions in a row after the first launch failure, delivering small satellites into orbit for NASA, the U.S. military, and commercial customers.

But a high-profile launch failure in January dealt Virgin Orbit another setback on the first-ever satellite launch attempt based from the United Kingdom. Virgin Orbit’s carrier aircraft took off from Spaceport Cornwall in England, then released the company’s LauncherOne rocket off the coast of Ireland. But a second stage failure caused the rocket and its payloads to fall back to Earth over the Atlantic Ocean, destroying nine small satellites from the UK, the United States, Oman, and Poland.

The January launch failure occurred after Virgin Orbit was already facing financial headwinds. Virgin Orbit went public in late 2021 through a merger with a special purpose acquisition company, but the launch provider raised less than half of the $483 million it expected to raise through the merger process.

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket fires its NewtonThree main engine moments after release from the Boeing 747 carrier jet, named “Cosmic Girl,” during a 2021 launch. Credit: Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit reported a net loss of $139.5 million for the first nine months of 2022, the latest period where financial statements are publicly available.

Branson, who established Virgin Orbit in 2017 as a spinoff from his suborbital space tourism venture Virgin Galactic, provided the struggling launch company with an infusion of $55 million in late 2022 and early 2023 through Virgin Investments Limited, part of Branson’s Virgin Group. The loans were enough to keep Virgin Orbit operating until last week.

In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Virgin Orbit said the pause in operations ordered last week was intended to “conserve capital while the company conducts discussions with potential funding sources and explores strategic opportunities.

“There can be no assurance that these discussions will result in any transaction,” the company said in the SEC filing, adding that it expects the operational pause to continue through at least Tuesday, March 21.

Meanwhile, Virgin Orbit’s investigation into the January launch failure is nearly complete. An update released by Virgin Orbit last month said engineers determined a fuel filter on the second stage was dislodged from its normal position at the beginning of the burn of the second stage’s Newton 4 engine a few minutes into the mission.

“Additional data shows that the fuel pump that is downstream of the filter operated at a degraded efficiency level, resulting in the Newton 4 engine being starved for fuel,” Virgin Orbit said. “Performing in this anomalous manner resulted in the engine operating at a significantly higher than rated engine temperature.

“Components downstream and in the vicinity of the abnormally hot engine eventually malfunctioned, causing the second stage thrust to terminate prematurely,” Virgin Orbit said. “The early thrust termination ended the mission, and the second stage and its payloads fell back to Earth, landing in the approved safety corridor in the Atlantic Ocean.”

Virgin Orbit said its next LauncherOne rocket, which was slated to fly a commercial mission from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, was in the final stages of integration and test when the company ordered the pause in operations.

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