Virgin Orbit, Richard Branson’s satellite launch company, to suspend operations

Virgin Orbit, the satellite launch company founded by billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, is suspending all operations and laying off nearly all of its employees in an effort to shore up its finances.

Employees were briefed in a staff meeting Wednesday, as first reported by CNBC, but the company did not say how long the operating suspension will last.

“Virgin Orbit is initiating a company-wide operational hiatus, effective March 16, 2023, and plans to provide an update on future operations in the coming weeks,” the company said in a statement provided to NBC News.

The decision follows a tumultuous few months for the Californian company. Virgin Orbit’s first attempt to launch satellites from the UK failed in January and its rocket and nine satellites on board were destroyed.

In a report Wednesday filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Virgin Orbit said the company-wide operating suspension was put in place “to conserve capital as the Company conducts discussions with potential funding sources and explores strategic opportunities.” .

The news sent shares of the company tumbling 18.8% on Wednesday, according to Reuters.

A Virgin Orbit aircraft sits on the runway at Cornwall Newquay Airport in Newquay, UK (James Beck/Bloomberg via Getty Images file)

Virgin Orbit was founded in 2017 with the aim of launching small satellites into orbit. The company uses a modified 747 passenger jet to carry and then release its LauncherOne rocket from an altitude of approximately 35,000 feet.

Virgin Orbit officials said this air-launch system gives the company more flexibility than competitors whose rockets lift off from ground-based launch pads.

The company’s bankruptcy in January was a major setback. The mission was a collaboration between Virgin Orbit, the British Space Agency, the Royal Air Force and Cornwall Council and marked the aerospace company’s first international launch attempt.

A subsequent investigation found that an engine in the rocket’s upper stage malfunctioned, causing it to shut down prematurely.

“In space launch, failure is painful for everyone involved,” Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said in a Feb. 14 statement. “The intense disappointment is quickly channeled into the motivation to dig into the cause, to understand all the elements that contribute to getting back to flying with a better system and a wiser crew. Our investigation is not complete yet; the team is hard at work and we will pursue the cause and the contributors wherever system analysis takes us”.

Prior to its UK release, Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket successfully reached orbit four times in missions launched from California’s Mojave Air and Space Port.

In a statement, Virgin Orbit said its next rocket, for an upcoming launch from California, is in the “final stages of integration and testing,” but the company didn’t release further details on the timing of that mission.

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