Will the UK’s space industry survive the collapse of Virgin Orbit?

Sir Richard Branson’s satellite firm ceased trading months after mission failure

Virgin Orbit LauncherOne. Richard Branson's satellite launch firm Virgin Orbit has paused operations, the company said, amid reports that it is working to secure additional funding. Issue date: Thursday March 16, 2023. Ministry of Defence / PA
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The collapse of British billionaire Sir Richard Branson’s satellite firm Virgin Orbit this week has thrown the future of the UK’s space industry into jeopardy.

On Tuesday, the firm announced it was permanently ceasing operations, months after a major mission failure.

Melissa Quinn, chief executive of Cornwall Spaceport, where the project was based, stepped down last week, leading to concerns the sector is now facing an uncertain future.

But Britain’s leading voices in the space industry have told The National they are confident the sector will continue to “thrive”, with new advances emerging.

David Jones, a former Wales minister, said while it was unfortunate that Virgin Orbit had gone bankrupt, it was not a reflection on the burgeoning British space industry.

“There are always going to be setbacks when it comes to the very advanced technology needed to enter space,” he said.

“But space development is advancing significantly in Britain, particularly with a Spaceport in Cornwall and another in Scotland.

“The UK has got a very important satellite industry and it’s got a major space industry that is producing great advances, particularly in satellites.”

UK's new rockets set to benefit in active commercial market

In January, Virgin Orbit, based in California, sought to complete the first satellite launch from British soil, with hopes the mission would be a major stepping stone for space exploration from the UK.

However, the firm’s LauncherOne rocket failed to reach orbit and saw its payload of US and UK intelligence satellites plunge into the ocean.

Last month, Sir Richard filed for bankruptcy after failing to secure rescue funding.

Cosmic Girl, a repurposed Boeing 747 aircraft carrying the LauncherOne rocket under its left wing, at Cornwall Airport Newquay. Getty

Keith Ryden, head of Surrey Space Centre and professor of space engineering at the University of Surrey, said that, despite the setback, the industry has an optimistic future.

“The apparent collapse of Virgin Orbit is hard for its employees and disappointing in terms of the UK’s horizonal launch capacity,” he said.

“However, there are still numerous launch options worldwide for the low Earth orbits Virgin Orbit were going to service and it’s clear that new rockets, including the UK-based vertical launchers now on the starting blocks, will enter a very active commercial market.

“In our part of the UK, where the Space South Central regional cluster is uniting academia and businesses, it’s very evident that our space industry is thriving.

“New technologies are emerging, developed by the skilled experts living in our region, and we’re extremely optimistic about the future.”

Experts warn the space industry is 'fragile'

Virgin Orbit was founded by Sir Richard in 2017 as an offshoot of his space-tourism venture Virgin Galactic Holdings, with the aim of securing a share of the market for launching small satellites into space.

Its goal was to provide swift and adaptable space launch services for the growing small satellites market by air-launching mini rockets from a modified Boeing 747-400 aircraft.

The LauncherOne rockets were launched from modified Virgin passenger planes, allowing the company to operate more flexibly than by using fixed launch sites.

Some fear the setback will lead investors to look to big US firms, such as SpaceX, instead.

Atma Prakash, senior lecturer in aerospace engineering in Teesside University’s School of Computing, Engineering and Digital Technologies, has warned that the industry is “fragile”.

“Space is not easy. When people give examples for simple tasks, they all say, this is not 'rocket science',” he said.

“But space is anything but simple. Given the complexities involved in planning any space missions, there are many risks associated to it which could result in delay or, worst-case scenario, failure of the mission.

“In the case of Virgin Orbit, that is exactly what happened. The failure launch from Spaceport Cornwall and the associated debts resulted in the downfall of the company.”

He added that Virgin Orbit was supposed to be the UK market's “torch bearer in the space economy”, particularly for Cornwall, with the promise of job opportunities and local development.

“But, due to the bankruptcy, the company has been forced to lay off hundreds of jobs,” Dr Prakash continued. “This shows there are always risks in the space sector and how fragile the space market is – even if the company is as big as Virgin.

Virgin Orbit's first rocket launch fails

Virgin Orbit's first rocket launch fails

“As this was the only public traded company in the space market, investors may now be more interested to invest in US rather than UK.

“Even though this is a great loss for the UK economy, it will not stop the growth of the space industry due to the big players such as SpaceX and Blue Origin already there to support and provide the space launches.”

Malcolm Macdonald, director of the Applied Space Technology Laboratory at the University of Strathclyde, said the collapse of Virgin Orbit should act as a warning to others.

“Directly, this has almost zero impact on the UK’s space sector. Despite the significant funding from UK government it seems that Virgin Orbit had no, or very few, UK employees,” he told The National.

“Indirectly, it is clearly bad news for Cornwall Spaceport, and the broader Cornwall space cluster, as Virgin Orbit was their only operator and it looks like they haven’t managed to yet establish a suitably robust business at that spaceport.

“This should be a cautionary tale for other single operator spaceports, of which the UK has a few.”

On Tuesday, following the collapse Virgin Orbit said its legacy would endure.

“Virgin Orbit’s legacy in the space industry will forever be remembered,” it said in a statement.

“Its groundbreaking technologies, relentless pursuit of excellence and unwavering commitment to advancing the frontiers of air launch have left an indelible mark on the industry.”

UK government still committed to supporting space sector

Even given the setback with Virgin Orbit, the UK government said it was still focused “on supporting multiple projects designed to make the UK the leading provider of commercial small satellite launch in Europe by 2030”.

“The government is committed to supporting this high-growth sector, boosting the UK’s reputation as a growing space power, and inspiring the next generation of professionals,” Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology Michelle Donelan said last month.

Aside from Spaceport Cornwall, where Virgin Orbit's UK operations were based, there is also “significant activity” under way in Scotland, with two new spaceports at SaxaVord and Sutherland expecting satellite launches in 2024.

Former Wales minister Mr Jones has praised Sir Richard for making attempts to commercialise space and predicted that despite the setback, the UK still has an important place in the space industry.

“You have to give credit to him for that and it's just very sad that his endeavour has failed,” said the senior Tory backbencher.

“But that's not a comment on the UK space industry as a whole. We've got a very important space industry and it will get more important as time goes on.”

Updated: May 25, 2023, 6:37 PM

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