Virgin Orbit hits ground after filing for redundancy

Days after announcing it was to cut 85% of its 750-strong workforce, responsive satellite launch provider files for bankruptcy

Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit Holdings and its US subsidiaries have commenced a voluntary proceeding under Chapter 11 of the US Bankruptcy Code to begin the sale of the business.

It comes just days after the firm revealed it was to cut 85% of its 750-strong workforce due to what it said was an inability to raise sufficient out-of-court capital to continue operating its business at the current run rate.

“The team at Virgin Orbit has developed and brought into operation a new and innovative method of launching satellites into orbit, introducing new technology and managing great challenges and great risks along the way as we proved the system and performed several successful space flights – including successfully launching 33 satellites into their precise orbit,” said Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart.

“While we have taken great efforts to address our financial position and secure additional financing, we ultimately must do what is best for the business,” he said. “We believe that the cutting-edge launch technology that this team has created will have wide appeal to buyers as we continue in the process to sell the company. At this stage, we believe that the Chapter 11 process represents the best path forward to identify and finalise an efficient and value-maximising sale.”

To help fund the redundancy process and protect its operations, Virgin Orbit has received a commitment from Virgin Investments Limited for $31.6m to provide the necessary liquidity to continue operating and prepare for a sale of the business and its assets.

Prior to the widely publicised failure on 9 January of the Virgin Orbit LauncherOne mission designed to fulfil the Start Me Up satellite programme from the Spaceport in Cornwall, the company had enjoyed a run of successes delivering space craft successfully from under the wing of a converted Boeing 747-400 aircraft.

Indeed, Start Me Up was the fifth consecutive Virgin Orbit launch to carry payloads for both private companies and government agencies, and all of the prior 33 satellites had carried LauncherOne to their desired orbit, while, said the company, demonstrating the ability to fly through and above inclement weather, integrate rapid-call up payloads and reach a broader range of orbits would be possible from a traditional ground-launch system.

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Encompassing a number of firsts, Start Me Up entailed carrying satellites from seven customers to space, including commercial and government payloads from several nations and a collaborative US-UK mission.

The satellites’ objectives were intended to span a wide range of activities including reducing the environmental impact of production; preventing illegal trafficking, smuggling and terrorism; and national security functions. Partners for the project with Virgin Orbit included the United Kingdom Space Agency (UKSA), Cornwall Council and the Royal Air Force.

The mission was the first orbital launch from the UK, the first international launch for Virgin Orbit and the first commercial launch from western Europe. Following its take-off, the rocket ignited its engines, going hypersonic and successfully reaching space. After successful separation and ignition of the second stage, at some point the system experienced what has been described as an “anomaly”, ending the mission.

Just days ago, and as it was criticising the UK government for continued failures in key technical areas of its space policy, the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee revealed it had held a dedicated follow-up session to hear witness statements to gain further insight into the failed Start Me Up launch.

In addition to Hart, the committee heard evidence from in-space manufacturing company Space Forge – which lost a satellite through the failed launch – as well as Spaceport Cornwall, the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority and UK Space Agency.

In his evidence, Hart revealed that initial investigations had indicated that the anomaly centred around a fuel filter becoming dislodged and affecting the fuel pump of the rocket’s second stage, with subsequent failure through heat build-up. He added that the company was in the middle of experiments to make sure it could relate flight telemetry and data to ground test results and resolve the issue.

Hart also told the committee that Virgin Orbit was finishing the build of the company’s next rocket, which has the suspect filter designed out of it. 

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