Virgin Orbit, Richard Branson's satellite launch company, to pause operations

Virgin Orbit, the satellite launch company founded by the billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson, is pausing all operations and furloughing nearly all of its employees, reportedly in an attempt to shore up its finances.

The operational hold, first reported by CNBC, went into effect Thursday but the company has not said how long it will last.

The decision follows a tumultuous few months for the California-based company. Virgin Orbit’s first attempt to launch satellites from the United Kingdom failed in January, and its rocket and nine onboard satellites were destroyed.

Employees were notified Wednesday in an all-hands staff meeting, CNBC reported, and were told to expect an update next week.

The news sent the company’s shares tumbling 18.8% in extended trading Wednesday, according to Reuters.

A Virgin Orbit aircraft sits on the tarmac at Cornwall Airport Newquay, in Newquay, U.K.
A Virgin Orbit aircraft sits on the tarmac at Cornwall Airport Newquay, in Newquay, U.K., last year. James Beck / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

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

Virgin Orbit officials have said that this system of launching from the air gives the company more flexibility over competitors whose rockets lift off from launch pads on the ground.

The company’s failure in January was a major setback. The mission was a collaboration between Virgin Orbit, the U.K. Space Agency, the Royal Air Force and the Cornwall Council, and marked the aerospace firm’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, a failure is painful for all involved,” Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart said in a statement Feb. 14. “Intense disappointment gets quickly channeled into the motivation to dig into the cause, to understand all contributing elements and to thereby get back to flight with a better system and a wiser team. Our investigation is not yet complete; the team is hard at work and we’ll pursue the cause and contributors to wherever the system analysis takes us.”


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