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Virgin Orbit Calls It Quits, First Major Space Company to File for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy

For more than a decade, space exploration has been the new El Dorado for rich folk in need of making even more money. One after the other, scores of startups popped into existence, feeding on humanity’s need to expand its borders beyond the confines of our planet. And now we get news of the first major such company going under Chapter 11.
Virgin Orbit is for sale and under Chapter 11 30 photos
Photo: Virgin Orbit
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At the dawn of this private companies-fueled space race, Elon Musk’s SpaceX had only a single major competitor, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. A company born to offer trips to space to rich tourists, Virgin Galactic would later spawn a sister company, offering satellite delivery solutions to companies and government organizations.

Called Virgin Orbit, the entity has been around since 2017, performing four successful satellite delivery missions. The fifth, called Start Me Up, departed the UK as the nation’s first orbital launch back in January, but failed on account of a fuel filter glitch.

Failed missions are not unheard of in the space industry, and Virgin Orbit seemed on track to resume operations as soon as it learned the cause of the British launch mishap. Yet now we get word of the company officially filing for bankruptcy in the District of Delaware.

As per a Virgin release, the bankruptcy was voluntarily asked for as a means to “effectuate a sale of the business.” The decision was taken after the company found it was unable to “raise sufficient out-of-court capital to continue operating its business at the current run-rate.”

Sad as it may seem for the current Virgin Orbit owners, the company as a whole probably has a lot of kick left in it to continue operating under new ownership. And it’s all owed to its innovative way of launching satellites into orbit.

Virgin Orbit uses a horizontal launch approach, deploying a rocket called LauncherOne from under the wing of a modified Boeing 747 named Cosmic Girl, which at the time of release flies at an altitude of about 35,000 feet (10 km).

This approach eliminates the need for a launch pad and other ground support equipment and facilities. In turn, the lack of extensive logistics makes the cost of using the LauncherOne cheaper than in the case of a traditional rocket – an estimated $12 million per launch, as opposed to the $67 million SpaceX is asking on average.

On the downside, there are limitations as to what LauncherOne can carry, as it can place in orbit only objects that weigh at most 500 kg (1,100 pounds).

While under Chapter 11 protection, and while seeking a new owner, Virgin Orbit secured funds worth $31.6 million to continue operations as a debtor-in-possession.

At the time of writing, there is no indication as to who may purchase Virgin Orbit. As a side note, I think we can safely rule Elon Musk out, because, despite some high-profile purchases lately, including that of Twitter, the man seem reluctant to invest in businesses that directly compete with his core companies, Tesla and SpaceX.
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About the author: Daniel Patrascu
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Daniel loves writing (or so he claims), and he uses this skill to offer readers a "behind the scenes" look at the automotive industry. He also enjoys talking about space exploration and robots, because in his view the only way forward for humanity is away from this planet, in metal bodies.
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