Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit Holdings has announced it will be shutting down operations, after the California-based entity declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy in early April.

The announcement this week also confirmed that Virgin Orbit “will sell its assets to four winning bidders and will cease operations.”

The ceasing of operations comes a few months after a space mission ended in failure, when a rocket carrying the first satellites launched from the UK failed to reach orbit.

Image credit: Virgin Orbit

Road to bankruptcy

The company struggled to recover from that failed launch from Cornwall in January, which had been intended to be the first launch of a satellite from UK soil.

The launch was aborted after a rocket fuel filter became dislodged, causing one of the engines to overheat.

The failure caused Virgin Orbit’s share price to collapse.

In March the firm paused operations to conserve cash and laid off 85 percent of its workforce.

Then in early April it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the US Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware after failing to secure long-term funding.

Now the firm has confirmed it is ceasing operations and its assets have been sold for $36.4m (£29m).

“Throughout its history, Virgin Orbit has been at the forefront of innovation and has made substantial contributions to the field of commercial rocket launch with its LauncherOne air launch platform,” said Virgin Orbit. “The Company’s cutting-edge technology, unmatched expertise, and commitment to excellence have propelled it to the vanguard of an emerging commercial launch industry.”

“As Virgin Orbit embarks on this path, the management and employees would like to extend their heartfelt gratitude to all stakeholders, including customers, partners, investors, and employees, for their support and dedication over the years,” the firm added. “It is through their collective efforts that the Company has been able to achieve significant milestones and make lasting contributions to the advancement of satellite launch in the United States and the United Kingdom.”

“Virgin Orbit’s legacy in the space industry will forever be remembered,” it concluded. “Its groundbreaking technologies, relentless pursuit of excellence, and unwavering commitment to advancing the frontiers of air launch have left an indelible mark on the industry.”

According to the filings, the bulk of Virgin Orbit’s Long Beach, California, headquarters have been sold to Rocket Lab USA.

Indeed, Rocket Lab won the Virgin Orbits primary manufacturing site for $16m, which included machinery and equipment that had been used to manufacture Virgin Orbits flagship LauncherOne rockets.

Tough industry

It is a sad ending for Virgin Orbit and all its employees, and demonstrates the tough nature of the space launch industry, which often requires large capital injections, coupled with the high risks associated with space launches.

Virgin Orbit had been formed in 2017 as a spin-off of Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space tourism venture, with the mission to develop and market the LauncherOne rocket.

Image credit: Virgin Orbit

LauncherOne was an air-launched two-stage launch vehicle capable of delivering 300kg of payload (mostly satellites) to low Earth orbit.

Image credit: Virgin Orbit

The rocket began operational flights in 2021 and was air-launched from the belly of a modified Boeing 747.

Image credit: Virgin Orbit

Virgin Orbit had listed on the Nasdaq in December 2021 through a merger with a blank-cheque company (NextGen Acquisition Corp), with a valuation of $3.7 billion (£3bn).

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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