Virgin Orbit, the space subsidiary of British billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, has filed for bankruptcy protection in the United States, citing a lack of funding and a failed launch in January. The company, which aimed to launch small satellites into orbit from a modified Boeing 747 jet, said it was seeking a sale of its assets under Chapter 11 of the US bankruptcy code.
The bankruptcy filing, which was made on March 30, 2023, in the US Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware, came after the company laid off 85% of its workforce last week. The company said it had about $100 million in debt and $50 million in assets.
Virgin Orbit was founded in 2017 as a spin-off of Virgin Galactic, Branson’s space tourism venture. The company claimed to offer a flexible and affordable way to launch satellites into low Earth orbit by dropping them from under the wing of a jumbo jet at high altitude. The company had secured contracts with NASA, the US Air Force, and several private customers.
However, the company faced technical challenges and delays in developing its LauncherOne rocket and Cosmic Girl carrier aircraft. The company also faced stiff competition from other players in the rapidly growing small satellite launch market, such as SpaceX, Rocket Lab, and Astra.
The company’s troubles came to a head on January 17, 2023, when its sixth launch attempt from Cornwall Airport Newquay in Britain ended in failure. The rocket failed to ignite after being released from the plane and crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. The company said it was investigating the cause of the mishap.
The bankruptcy filing has cast doubt on the company’s plans to launch rockets from other locations around the world, including Guam, Japan, Brazil, and Australia. In September 2021, the company signed an agreement with Wagner Corporation to launch rockets from Wellcamp Airport near Toowoomba in Queensland by 2024.
Wagner Corporation chairman John Wagner said he was not surprised by the news and hoped that Virgin Orbit would emerge stronger from the bankruptcy process. He said he was still optimistic about the future of the aerospace precinct at Wellcamp Airport.
Virgin Orbit is not the only Virgin Group company that has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the travel and tourism industry. Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Australia, and Virgin Galactic have also faced financial difficulties and restructuring in recent years.