Bankrupt Virgin Orbit is dead, its assets purchased by a variety of different companies

After failing to find a single buyer for the whole company, Virgin Orbit is now officially dead as a company, its assets broken up during bankruptcy proceedings and purchased by several different companies.

Rocket Lab paid $16.1 million for Virgin Orbit’s main manufacturing facility in California, which it intends to use for developing its larger Neutron rocket. Stratolaunch paid $17 million for the company’s 747 airplane and related equipment. Launcher, a former rocket startup that is now owned by the space station startup Vast, paid $2.7 for the company’s test site in Mojave, California, which it plans to use for static fire engine tests of a rocket engine it is developing for sale to others. A liquidation company purchased other assets, while the various LauncherOne rockets under construction remain unsold.

It is essential the reasons for this failure are made very clear. The destruction of this company occurred because regulators in the United Kingdom prevented it from launching from within the UK for almost half a year, during which it could not perform other launches elsewhere and therefore earn revenue. It then ran very low on cash, and when the UK launch failed in January, the company no longer had the resources to weather to time necessary to complete the investigation, fix the problem that caused the failure, and resume launches.

For other rocket startups, it is very important to consider this story before committing to launching in the UK. where you will face major bureaucratic obstacles from its government. Until there is evidence that something has changed, it might be better to consider other launch sites.

Virgin Orbit resumes limited operations

In anticipation of a possibly deal to save the company, Virgin Orbit officials have resumed limited operations, bringing back a small number of employees to work on crucial issues required for its next launch.

“Our first step will begin Thursday of this week, when we plan to return a subset of our team to focus on critical areas for our next mission,” Virgin Orbit said in a statement. “We are looking forward to getting back to our mission and returning to orbit.”

…Reuters reported that Virgin Orbit is working on a $200 million infusion from Texas-based venture capital investor Matthew Brown via a private share placement, citing a term sheet. Following a meeting by Virgin Orbit’s board on Tuesday, the two sides plan to close the deal on Friday, according to the non-binding term sheet, Reuters said.

Should the company resume full operations and launch again, I am certain it will not launch from the United Kingdom, at least not until the UK has fixed its launch licensing bureau, the Civil Aviation Authority, which took so long to approve Virgin Orbit’s launch from Cornwall it practically bankrupted the company.

Virgin Orbit pauses operations; seeks funding

Virgin Orbit today paused all operations for at least a week, putting almost its entire staff on furlough as it seeks new financing.

Chief Executive Dan Hart told staff that the furlough would buy Virgin Orbit time to finalise a new investment plan, a source who attended the event told Reuters news agency. It was not clear how long the furlough would last, but Mr Hart said employees would be given more information by the middle of next week.

If Virgin Orbit dies, its death will be because a British government agency killed it. The company had planned on launching from Cornwall in the early fall of 2022, at the latest, and then do several other launches in 2022, all of which would have earned it revenue. Instead, the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) delayed issuing the launch license until January 2023, about a half a year later, preventing Virgin Orbit from launching for that time and literally cutting it off from any ability to make money. The result was that it ran out of funds.

Obviously the launch failure that followed the CAA’s approval did not help. Nor did the company’s decision to rely on only one 747 to launch its satellites. Nonetheless, the fault of this company’s death can mostly be attributed to a government bureaucracy that failed in its job so badly that it destroyed a private company.

Dislodged fuel filter identified as cause of Virgin Orbit launch failure

Virgin Orbit yesterday revealed that a dislodged fuel filter in LauncherOne’s upper stage caused the failure of the rocket to reach orbit during its January 9, 2023 launch from Cornwall, UK.

The data is indicating that from the beginning of the second stage first burn, a fuel filter within the fuel feedline had been dislodged from its normal position. Additional data shows that the fuel pump that is downstream of the filter operated at a degraded efficiency level, resulting in the Newton 4 engine being starved for fuel. Performing in this anomalous manner resulted in the engine operating at a significantly higher than rated engine temperature.

Components downstream and in the vicinity of the abnormally hot engine eventually malfunctioned, causing the second stage thrust to terminate prematurely.

The rocket thus did not have enough velocity to reach orbit, and fell in the ocean.

No word yet on when the company will next launch, though it has said that launch will be from Mojave, California.

Virgin Orbit narrows cause of launch failure to $100 component

Though its investigation is not completed, Virgin Orbit has narrowed the cause of its January 9th launch failure from Cornwall to a $100 component in the second stage engine of its LaunchOne rocket.

Speaking on a panel at the SmallSat Symposium in Mountain View, California, Dan Hart said it was still premature to formally declare the root cause of the failed Jan. 9 flight of the company’s LauncherOne rocket on the “Start Me Up” mission from Spaceport Cornwall in England. However, he said while that investigation continues, evidence was pointing to a component in the rocket’s second stage engine.

“Everything points to, right now, a filter that was clearly there when we assembled the rocket but was not there as the second stage engine started, meaning it was dislodged and caused mischief downstream,” he said. He didn’t go into details about that component, other than to say that it was not an expensive item. “This is like a $100 part that took us out.”

Hart said the company would no longer use that filter and was “looking broadly” at other potential fixes.

No timeline as to when the company will complete the investigation or resume launches has been released. Since both the FAA and the UK’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch are involved, we should expect it to take longer than necessary.

Virgin Orbit launch a failure today from Cornwall, Great Britain

Five minutes after I posted the information below, Virgin Orbit’s announcer came on to announce that LauncherOne had suffered “an anomaly” and would not successfully place the satellites in orbit.

The failure must have occurred during a later stage after the rocket was released and was preparing for the second engine burn of its upper stage. They have ended the live stream without providing a further update, which is not surprising considering the data that needs to be analyzed.

Original post:
Virgin Orbit today successfully completed the first orbital launch ever the United Kingdom, taking off from a runway in Cornwall, Great Britain, and then releasing its LaunchOne rocket from the bottom of a 747.

All in all 9 satellites were launched. This was Virgin Orbit’s fifth successful commercial launch, and hopefully will open a 2023 whereby the company will makeup for six months of bureaucratic red tape that essentially blocked about six launches last year. As of this writing the satellites have not yet deployed.

The 2023 launch race:

2 China
1 SpaceX

Two SpaceX launches coming later this evening.

Virgin Orbit’s launch from Cornwall finally scheduled for January 9th

The first orbital launch from the United Kingdom has finally been scheduled, with Virgin Orbit’s 747 taking off from an airport in Cornwall on January 9, 2023 and carrying its LauncherOne rocket with 9 satellites.

Monday’s mission opportunity has been purchased by the US National Reconnaissance Office and is being used to advance a number of satellite technologies of security and defence interest to both the American and British governments. But there are also civil applications being taken up on the flight – and a number of firsts, such as the first satellite built in Wales and the first satellite for the Sultanate of Oman.

The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority [CAA], which regulates commercial spaceflight in the UK, said on Thursday that all nine spacecraft on the manifest had now been licensed. Virgin and Spaceport Cornwall received their launch licences before Christmas.

The launch was originally planned for sometime in the summer, but delays in obtaining the launch permits from the CAA pushed it back a half year. That unexpected and unnecessary delay now threatens the very existence of Virgin Orbit, as the company could do no other launches as it waited and thus earned nothing.

Virgin Orbit completes $37 million stock sale

It appears that Virgin Orbit has just completed a $37 million sale of new common stock, valued at $0.0001 per share, and equal to about 10% of the company.

Hat tip to stringer Jay, who writes, “To me, it is like V.O. is printing money. They have already lost most of the value of the original stock, they are losing about $20 million a quarter, and they just raised $37M.”

Virgin Orbit had planned in 2022 about eight launches. It completed two, and then got blocked by the UK bureaucracy, completing no more launches for the rest of year while it waited months for permits to launch from Cornwall. During that time it could not launch its other customers because it only had one 747 in its fleet to launch its rocket.

No launches means no income. To keep the company afloat Branson has had his larger company Virgin Group transfer first $25 million and then another $20 million to Virgin Orbit. This stock sale appears to be another effort to keep Virgin Orbit above water.

The endless and unexpected delays getting permits to launch from Cornwall now suggests that some people in the UK government might not like Branson, and took this opportunity to sabotage him. Pure speculation I know, but not beyond the realm of possibility.

Virgin Orbit schedules launch from the UK, despite no permit

Virgin Orbit has now scheduled its first launch from a Cornwall airport for December 14, 2022, even though the company has not been issued its launch permit from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) of the United Kingdom, even after almost six months of delays.

Spaceport Cornwall was awarded an operators licence by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) last month, meaning the site is licensed for launch operations.

However, Virgin Orbit as the operator needs both launch and range licences from the CAA before the historic launch can happen. Spaceport Cornwall told MailOnline that December 14 is when the window opens for the first launch attempt – although this is ‘by no means a guaranteed flight date’.

According to a BBC report, that license has still not been issued. I suspect Virgin Orbit has set this date to pressure the CAA to finally get its act together and issue the permit.

Virgin Orbit’s cash problems continue

Because of endless delays getting a regulatory approval of a launch in the United Kingdom, Virgin Orbit has been unable to complete the 4 to 6 launches in 2022 that it had planned, and is thus experiencing serious cash shortages that has now caused it to cancel plans to sell “additional securities.”

Virgin Orbit reported third quarter revenues of $30.9 million, which exceeded the zero revenues reported in Q3 2021. The company’s net loss was $43.6 million, which was higher than the $38.6 million loss in Q3 2021.

While costs and losses have mounted, Virgin Orbit has experienced delays in increasing its launch rate. The company had planned to conduct four to six launches this year. Today, the total stands at only two with just over a month left in 2022.

Virgin Orbit’s third launch was originally scheduled to take place in last August from Spaceport Cornwall in England. The company is still awaiting a license from the UK government that would allow the launch to take place. It is the first time the government has licensed both an orbital launch and a spaceport, so the process it taking longer than anticipated.

The company had not only ramped up production of its LauncherOne rocket in anticipation of an increased launch rate, it also purchased two more 747s to act as the rocket’s first stage carrier. Those actions however were based on the ability to increase the launch rate, which has been stymied since the summer by Great Britain’s Civil Aviation Authority, which can’t seem to issue permission for Virgin Orbit to launch from a runway in Cornwall.

The canceled sale of securities appears part of the entire investment deal near the end of 2021. The cash shortages and this deal also appear connected to the decision by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group to invest $25 million in Virgin Orbit earlier this month.

Virgin Orbit officials say they intend to double their launch rate in 2023. I suspect that they have to. It is now sink or swim.

UK awards launch license to Cornwall airport

After several months delay, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in the United Kingdom yesterday issued a license to a Cornwall airport, dubbed Spaceport Cornwall, allowing Virgin Orbit to begin final preparations for the first orbital launch from within the British Isles.

The red tape however is not done.

The licence means that Virgin Orbit, which is behind the launch (named Start Me Up after the Rolling Stones song), is clear to begin to carry out mission-readiness tasks. But further licences are needed relating to this specific mission before blast-off can happen.

Melissa Thorpe, the head of Spaceport Cornwall, said: “To be the first spaceport in the UK with a licence to operate is a historic moment. Cornwall is now ready to open up the use of space for good.” She added: “The CAA continues to work on several licence applications, including being in very advanced stages with Virgin Orbit on its applications for launch and range licences, as well as the satellite operators, ahead of a proposed first UK launch.

I am reminded of the meme showing a crowd of officials surrounding one ditch digger, with the only one doing any real work that digger. It appears right now that the bureaucrats in the CAA might outnumber the staffing at both Virgin Orbit and Cornwall, and all they have to do is issue a piece of paper.

Virgin Orbit gets UK marine license for its Cornwall launch

Virgin Orbit has been issued its marine license from the United Kingdom for its planned October 29, 2022 launch from Cornwall, the first such orbital launch from the British Isles.

Virgin Orbit proposes to conduct a maximum of one launch in 2022 and approximately two launches per year over the next 8 years (January 2023-December 2030).

The licence issued by MMO covers the 2022 launch, the first of its kind in the UK. As there is material to be deposited into the sea that will be loaded in the UK, the activity requires a marine licence from MMO, as required by The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009.

The ever-growing reach of government bureaucracy is worldwide. Though Virgin Orbit’s airplane, carrying the LauncherOne rocket and its seven smallsats, is taking off from Cornwall, the release of that rocket will not occur until it is over the Atlantic, with the expendable first stage falling into the ocean west of Portugal. Yet somehow the company must get permission of these UK bureaucrats — as well as American ones — to fly.

Virgin Orbit puts seven Space Force smallsats in orbit

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit last night successfully launched seven smallsats for the Space Force, using its Cosmic Girl 747 carrier plane and its LauncherOne rocket.

This was the company’s first night time launch, and its second in 2022. The leader board for the 2022 launch race remains the same:

27 SpaceX
21 China
8 Russia
4 Rocket Lab

The U.S. now leads China 39 to 21 in the national rankings, and the entire world combined 39 to 35.

Virgin Orbit signs deal to launch from Brazil

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit yesterday announced that it has signed an agreement with the Brazil Space Agency (AEB) to establish facilities and conduct launches from that nation’s long unused Alcântara spaceport.

The license is granted to Virgin Orbit Brasil Ltda. (VOBRA), a newly formed and wholly owned Brazilian subsidiary dedicated to bringing the LauncherOne air-launch rocket system to the Alcântara Launch Center (Centro de Lançamento de Alcântara, CLA).

The formation of the VOBRA entity for dedicated Brazilian space activities is designed to bring an important new capability to the country and economic value to the region. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne system, which uses a customized 747 aircraft, Cosmic Girl, as its flying and fully reusable launch pad, will conduct launches from the existing airbase at the Brazilian site, flying hundreds of miles before releasing the rocket directly above the equator — a global sweet spot — or at other optimal locations identified for each individual mission.

Being able to launch smallsats from the equator gives Virgin Orbit the ability to place those satellites in any orbit around the Earth for far less fuel, an advantage not available to spaceports at higher latitudes.

Virgin Orbit to expand its fleet of 747s used with its LauncherOne rocket

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit has signed a deal with L3 Harris Technologies to buy two more 747s airplanes to airlift its LauncherOne rocket during launches.

L3Harris will modify one of the newly acquired aircrafts to serve as an additional airborne launch pad for Virgin Orbit’s small satellite launch service, with delivery expected in 2023. L3Harris will also overhaul the platform with a new cargo configuration, which is expected to allow Virgin Orbit to deliver its rockets and ground support equipment in the same aircraft that will launch from foreign spaceports.

The companies previously collaborated to produce Virgin Orbit’s flagship aircraft “Cosmic Girl,” the first customized 747-400 aircraft to carry and deploy payloads to Low Earth Orbit under Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne program.

This deal once completed will give Virgin Orbit a fleet of three 747s for launching its rocket. The deal also suggests the company now has enough launch business to justify this expansion.

OneWeb and Arianespace scramble to find a rocket to launch satellites

Capitalism in space: With the cancellation of the last six Soyuz-2 launches for OneWeb and Arianespace due to Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine, the two companies are struggling to find an alternative rocket to launch the remaining 216 satellites that would complete OneWeb’s satellite constellation.

OneWeb has already paid Arianespace for the launches, so the responsibility to get the satellites in orbit is at present Arianespace’s. The problem is that its flight manifest for both the Ariane-5 (being retired) and the new Ariane-6 rocket are presently full.

Going to another rocket provider is problematic, even if a deal could be negotiated. The flight manifest for ULA’s Atlas-5 and Vulcan rockets is also filled. Though SpaceX’s Falcon 9 could probably launch the satellites, that company’s Starlink satellite constellation is in direct competition with OneWeb, which makes it unlikely the two companies could make a deal.

There have been negotiations with India to use its rockets, but it is unclear at present whether this will work.

One other option is to buy a lot of launches from the smallsat rockets of Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbiter, and Astra. This will likely cost more because more launches will be required, and that would required a complex negotiation between all parties.

Virgin Orbit successfully launches seven satellites

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit today successfully launched seven smallsats into orbit using its LauncherOne rocket released from a 747.

The link takes you to the Virgin Orbit live stream, which has now ended but can be replayed. The upper stage is presently coasting to its apogee where it will fire again to circularize the orbit for satellite deployment.

This was Virgin Orbit’s third successful launch, and second commercial launch.

The 2022 launch race:

2 SpaceX
1 Virgin Orbit

No one else as yet launched this year.

Virgin Orbit signs deal with Japanese company to launch satellites in Japan

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit has signed a non-binding agreement with the Japanese airline company All Nippon Airways (ANA) to launch twenty times from a runway in Japan.

Under the terms of the memorandum of understanding that Virgin Orbit announced Nov. 4, ANA and several partners will fund the manufacturing of mobile ground support equipment for the LauncherOne system that will fly from a pre-existing runway. ANA would also “lead the effort to provide funds and support for [the 20 envisioned] orbital missions,” Virgin Orbit said.

Pending regulatory approvals in the United States and Japan, Oita could be ready for launch missions by the end of 2022, Virgin Orbit said.

This is the second airport in Asia that Virgin Orbit is planning to launch from, with the first in Guam.

Russians launch Progress freighter; Virgin Orbit launches seven commercial satellites

This morning two launches occurred. First the Russians successfully launched a Progress freighter to ISS, using their Soyuz-2 rocket.

Second, Virgin Orbit successfully completed its second orbital launch with its air-launched LauncherOne rocket, which was its first operational commercial launch, placing seven smallsats into orbit for three customers. This was also its second launch in 2021.

If all goes as planned, SpaceX will complete a third launch today also, placing more than 80 smallsats in orbit with its Falcon 9 rocket. Until then, however, the leaders in the 2021 launch race are as follows:

19 SpaceX
18 China
10 Russia
3 Northrop Grumman

The U.S. now leads China 28-18 in the national rankings.

Virgin Orbit signs deal with Brazil to launch from that country

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit and the Brazilian Space Agency have signed an agreement to allow the company to launch satellites from one of its facilities.

Launches would occur from the Alcântara Launch Center (Centro de Lançamento de Alcântara, CLA) on Brazil’s northern coast, located just two degrees south of the equator. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne system, which uses a customized 747 aircraft as its flying launch pad and fully reusable first stage, could conduct launches from the existing airbase at the site, flying hundreds of miles before releasing the rocket directly above the equator or at other locations optimized for each individual mission. The approach enables Alcântara to become one of the only continental spaceports in the world capable of reaching any orbital inclination.

This is an excellent deal for both. Brazil gets some commercial space business, and Virgin Orbit’s 747 will no longer have to fly long distances to get to an equator launch point.

Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne successfully reaches orbit

Capitalism in space: After eight years of development, Virgin Orbit has finally used its LauncherOne air-launched rocket to successfully put ten satellites into orbit.

After an eight month stand down to resolve issues revealed during the first mission of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket, the company made their second orbital launch attempt on Sunday, January 17. The air-launched rocket successfully carried ten CubeSats to their target orbit for NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program.

This makes Virgin Orbit the second smallsat rocket company to achieve orbit, following Rocket Lab. They have beat out a large number of startups, and are now well positioned to gain some of the market share in this new component of the launch market.

They have also made true my September 2016 prediction that Virgin Orbit would complete its first commercial launch before Virgin Galactic’s first suborbital commercial flight, even though Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo began development eight years earlier.

As for the 2021 launch race, right now only SpaceX and Virgin Orbit have launched in 2021. They are tied for the lead, and also combine to put the U.S. ahead 2 to nothing over everyone else.

Next Virgin Orbit LauncherOne test flight set for late December

Capitalism in space: According to Coast Guard notices, the next Virgin Orbit attempt to put its new LauncherOne rocket into orbit should occur sometime between December 18-21.

A Nov. 24 “Local Notice to Mariners” by the U.S. Coast Guard stated that Virgin Orbit “will conduct hazardous operations” offshore from San Nicolas Island, California, between Dec. 18 and 21. Those operations will take place during a four-hour window that opens at 1 p.m. Eastern.

The notice does not explicitly state that a launch will take place, but Virgin Orbit used the same language in a Coast Guard notice for its first orbital launch attempt in May. That earlier notice, which also cited “hazardous operations,” had the same four-hour window and location for the operations.

The company has not officially announced the launch date, but it has said it would fly this mission before the end of this year.

The article also notes that another smallsat launch startup, Astra, has announced its next launch attempt will take place during a 12-day launch window starting December 7th.

Break in fuel line caused LauncherOne failure

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit has determined that a break in the oxygen feed line in its LauncherOne rocket caused the failure during its first orbital test flight in late May.

Speaking at a webinar organized by the Space Generation Advisory Council, an organization for young space industry professionals, Dan Hart said the demonstration mission for the LauncherOne rocket May 25 went well until several seconds after the ignition of the NewtonThree engine that powers the rocket’s first stage. “We had a component break in our engine system. It was a high-pressure feed line,” he said. Liquid oxygen “stopped going into the engine and our flight was terminated.”

The company has performed an investigation and identified what needs to be fixed in the engine to strengthen the components that failed. A second LauncherOne rocket is in final integration right now and will be leaving the factory in the next few weeks while modifications to the engine continue. “We’ll be targeting our next flight before the end of the year,” Hart said.

They need to meet that schedule, as in the past few years they have consistently failed to fly when promised.

Virgin Orbit provides update on LauncherOne failure

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit has posted a detailed update on the failure of its LauncherOne rocket on its first launch on May 25.

About 9 seconds after drop, something malfunctioned, causing the booster stage engine to extinguish, which in turn ended the mission. We cannot yet say conclusively what the malfunction was or what caused it, but we feel confident we have sufficient data to determine that as we continue through the rigorous investigation we’ve already begun. With the engine extinguished, the vehicle was no longer able to maintain controlled flight — but the rocket did not explode. It stayed within the predicted downrange corridors of our projections and our Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) launch license as the vehicle fell to the ocean, posing no risk to public safety, no danger our aircrew or aircraft, and no significant environmental impact.

They note that the rocket’s release and engine ignition went as planned, which is for them positive news. They say they their next rocket is being prepared for launch, but do not say when.

I have embedded their video report of the flight below the fold. It does include video of the rocket’s release, ignition, and shut down, but cuts off at that point.
» Read more

LauncherOne flight terminates early

Capitalism in space: The first demo flight of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket ended almost immediately after the rocket made a clean separation from its 747 first stage.

Cosmic Girl took off just before 12 PM PT (3 PM ET) from Mojave Air and Spaceport in California. The aircraft was piloted by Chief Test Pilot Kelly Latimer, along with her co-pilot Todd Ericson. The aircraft then flew to its target release point, where LauncherOne did manage a “clean release” from the carrier craft as planned at around 12:50 PM PT (3:50 PM ET), but Virgin noted just a few minutes later that the mission was subsequently “terminated.”

No one was hurt in the failure, but no word yet on what happened.

They had warned that this first test flight might not reach orbit. Nor should anyone be surprised, as first flights of rockets often fail. Nonetheless, this failure will hurt the company effort to gain launch contracts.

LauncherOne first launch set for May 24

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit has announced that it will attempt the first orbital launch of its LauncherOne rocket this coming Sunday, May 24.

The company is targeting Sunday (May 24) for its Launch Demo mission, with a backup opportunity on Monday (May 25). The four-hour window will open each day at 1 p.m. EDT (1700 GMT), Virgin Orbit representatives announced today (May 20).

Launch Demo will be a huge milestone for Virgin Orbit, which has been developing its air-launch system for five years. That system involves a modified Boeing 747 jet called Cosmic Girl and a 70-foot-long (21 meters) rocket known as LauncherOne, which is capable of delivering about 1,100 lbs. (500 kilograms) to a variety of destinations in low Earth orbit.

If the launch succeeds, than Virgin Orbit will stand ready to begin commercial launches later this year.

Virgin Orbit completes capture-carry test of LauncherOne

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit yesterday completed the first capture-carry test of LauncherOne with it attached to the company’s 747 loaded with cryogenic materials.

In previous flight tests, the booster’s tanks were filled with water, which is much warmer than LOX.

For this cryogenic test, Virgin Orbit substituted liquid nitrogen for the LOX as a safety precaution. “So, for this end-to-end rehearsal, we’ll have liquid nitrogen — which is very similar in temperature to liquid oxygen, but which would pose less of a risk in case anything were to go wrong despite all of our planning — in our LOX tanks for both stages,” Virgin Orbit wrote in a mission update.

They say this was their last test prior to LauncherOne’s maiden flight. They have not yet set a date for that flight.

This maiden flight was first supposed to happen in 2018, but in that year development of this rocket slowed to a snail’s pace, probably because they had lost a major launch contract.

The contract award only two days ago from the Space Force will likely reinvigorate Virgin Orbit.

My 2016 prediction that Virgin Orbit would make its first operational flight before Virgin Galactic, even though Virgin Galactic had been started development of SpaceShipOne more than a decade earlier, is still holding. The race now appears to be neck-in-neck, as Virgin Galactic claims it will do operational flights this year. We shall see.

First Virgin Orbit launch pending?

Capitalism in space: According to their CEO, the first launch of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket is expected to occur in the “coming weeks.”

“We are positioned at the end of the runway in Mojave. Our rocket is married to our 747,” he said. “We’re going through launch rehearsals.”

In an interview after the panel, Hart said that the company was ready to move into operations quickly should that test launch be a success. “If we have a great day, we’re poised to go forward pretty much immediately,” he said. The next LauncherOne rocket is currently “well along” in assembly at the company’s Long Beach, California, factory.

He also admitted that as a demo test flight, that first launch could go sour, and they were prepared for that.

The development of LauncherOne slowed appreciably in the past two years. In July 2018 got their first launch license, and said they would do this launch late that year. It did not happen. Then, in November 2018 they began capture-carry flights, with the expectation they would fly this first launch in 2019. This did not happen either. Worse, in August 2019 it was revealed that the company had lost a major launch contract, the lose of which might explain the slowdown in development.

Despite this slow down, my 2016 prediction that LauncherOne will complete its first commercial flight before Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, still looks good, even though SpaceShipTwo began development more than a decade before LauncherOne.

Virgin Orbit to add 3rd stage to LauncherOne for planetary missions

Capitalism in space: Even as it prepares for its first orbital demonstration flight, Virgin Orbit today announced that it is considering development of a third stage that will make the rocket capable of launching planetary cubesat missions.

John Fuller, Virgin Orbit advanced concepts director, said the company is deciding between three “highly energetic third stage” options for LauncherOne that would enable the rocket to launch up to 50 kilograms to Mars or 70 kilograms to Venus. The “Exploration 3-Stage Variant” of LauncherOne would also have the ability to launch around 100 kilograms to the moon or toward Lagrange points, he said.

“What we do is we take that third stage and bring the overall impulse of the vehicle up to a point where we can reach very high energies to launch to cis-lunar, interplanetary or even asteroid targets,” Fuller said Oct. 24 at the 70th International Astronautical Congress here.

The company however has still not flown the rocket, and that first flight is now about a year-plus behind schedule. They say they are preparing for the first orbital mission before the end of year but until it happens there is plenty of room for skepticism.

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