Virgin Orbit Holdings Inc shares (NASDAQ:VORB), are fast returning to earth following a technical problem that prevented Virgin Orbit Holdings Inc from taking its commercial payloads into space. This was supposed to be the first launch of an orbital spacecraft from the UK.
Launching using a converted Boeing jumbo plane – nicknamed Cosmic Girl from Spaceport Cornwall – was successful. After reaching altitude, the LauncherOne rocket was unclipped. It then ignited its engines.
It flew at hypersonic speeds, and reached space before completing the next stage.
“At one point during the firing the rocket’s second-stage engine, and with the rocket traveling at a speed greater than 11,000 mph, the system experienced an abnormality, ending the mission prematurely,” said the company. It was a quick deleting of a tweet that the company claimed confirmed the damp squib meant to usher in a new era of UK space industry.
The good news was that Cosmic Girl returned to Cornwall safely at the time of the anomaly. However, the UK Space Agency stated that the satellites and rocket would have burned up when they entered the Earth’s atmosphere again, most likely over the North Atlantic.
This included payloads for seven customers who were disappointed by the launch, including the UK’s Ministry of Defence and AAC Clyde Space and Airbus Defence and Space.
This was bad news to a company that had been in financial trouble. An attempt to raise funds in November was abandoned due to the tough stock market conditions. Sir Richard Branson, founder, gave a US$25mln cash boost.
Virgin Orbit’s chief executive Dan Hart admitted that Virgin Orbit “failed to provide its customers with the launch services they deserve.”
He acknowledged the “many achievements” of the mission and stated that technical failures had prevented them from delivering the final orbit.
Firsts in the UK
It was the company’s first overseas mission, and it was also the first launch from Spaceport Cornwall. Spaceport Cornwall became licensed as the UK’s first spaceport in November under the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which is the new UK regulator for the space launch sector.
Melissa Thorpe, the head of the Newquay-based, converted airport, said: “We are so proud of everything that we have achieved together with our partners in the space industry here, in the UK, and in the US. We made it to space – a UK first.
“Unfortunately, we discovered that Virgin Orbit suffered an anomaly which meant we couldn’t complete a successful mission. Today, we have inspired millions and will continue to inspire millions. We are proud of our ambition, but also our determination. Space is not easy, but we’re just beginning.”
Matt Archer, Director of Commercial Spaceflight at UK Space Agency said that “we have demonstrated the UK is capable launching into orbit, however, the launch was unsuccessful in reaching the required orbit. In the coming days, we will be working closely with Virgin Orbit to investigate the cause of the anomaly. Although this is disappointing, the launch of a spacecraft carries serious risks.
“Despite this, we have succeeded in creating a Horizontal Launch Capability at Spaceport Cornwall. We remain committed to being the top provider of small-sized satellite launches in Europe by 2030. Vertical launches are planned from Scotland.”
According to pre-market trading, Virgin Orbit shares will see a 22% drop in trading when New York opens on Tuesday.
Hargreaves Lansdown analyst Susannah Streeter said that it was a “major setback” for Virgin Orbit as well as the spaceport.
Virgin’s troubles since its public listing in 2021, when it merged with Next Gen Acquisition (SPAC), had led to high hopes for the operation.
She pointed out that the company’s cash burn has been high and that prospects for revenue are severely impacted. Space may be the next frontier in investment, but ventures come with significant risk.
She said that the problem was not insurmountable as the initial stages of the operation went without a hitch. She also suggested that Newquay’s chances as a future space hub are still good and that “it is likely that new missions will be attempted once all investigations have been completed.” As an investment case, however, it appears that the space flight ahead looks volatile.