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Virgin Orbit ceases operations months after failure of UK space mission

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Virgin Orbit, the satellite launch company founded by British billionaire Richard Branson, will permanently cease operations, just months after a major mission failure.

The California-based firm, which had already filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the United States in early April, has auctioned off its main assets, recovering just over $36m. That figure is barely 1% of the value the company reached in late 2021 on Wall Street, when it was valued at $3.5 billion.

In a statement announcing it was selling its assets to four winning bidders and then folding, Virgin Orbit thanked its employees and stakeholders and said the company will be remembered for its “groundbreaking technologies.”

“Throughout its history, Virgin Orbit has been at the forefront of innovation and has made substantial contributions to the field of commercial rocket launch,” the company said on Tuesday.

The satellite launch company was formed as part of space tourism business Virgin Galactic, which transported Branson into sub-orbital flight in 2021 nine days ahead of his billionaire rival, the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Virgin Orbit spun out on its own from Galactic in 2017, and in late 2021 rode a wave of investor enthusiasm in a merger with a cash shell that listed its shares on New York’s Nasdaq stock exchange.

Its goal was to provide swift and adaptable space launch services for the growing small satellites market. Virgin Orbit used a rocket, LauncherOne, strapped under the wing of a converted Boeing 747 called Cosmic Girl – a horizontal launch method that differs from most rivals’ vertical launches.

The company suffered a crippling setback earlier this year when an attempt to launch the first rocket into space from British soil ended in failure. In January, the launch of a rocket from Cornwall drew huge crowds and mass interest. The company said that an anomaly meant the rocket could not reach the required altitude and was later lost.

Virgin Orbit later paused operations and put staff on furlough in early March as it tried to secure a funding lifeline and stop burning through cash. The company cut 85% of its staff at the end of March after it failed to secure fresh funding.

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