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Rocket Lab Plans to Further Neutron Program With Virgin Orbit Assets but Grounds LauncherOne

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
May 24, 2023
Filed under , , , ,
Rocket Lab Plans to Further Neutron Program With Virgin Orbit Assets but Grounds LauncherOne
Neutron’s Hungry Hippo fairing opens to release a satellite.
Image credit: Rocket Lab.

Rocket Lab said on Tuesday that it will use the manufacturing facility and equipment it acquired from bankrupt Virgin Orbit to accelerate the development of its new Neutron rocket. The company has no plans to integrate Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket into its line of launch vehicles, however, indicating the booster will likely never fly again.

On Monday, Rocket Lab bid $16.1 million for the lease to Virgin Orbit’s 144,000 square foot headquarters and manufacturing facility in Long Beach, California. Rocket Lab will receive production assets, machinery, and equipment located there that Virgin Orbit used to produce the LauncherOne booster.

“Rocket Lab is a global industry leader in launch, and our new, larger rocket Neutron will bring added reliability, reusability, and innovation to the launch sector,” CEO and Founder Peter Beck said in a press release. “With Neutron’s design and development well-advanced, this transaction represents a capital expenditure savings opportunity to augment our production capability to bring Neutron to the launch pad quickly to serve our customers and their future success. Securing the lease to the Conant Facility adds to our existing presence in Long Beach and provides co-located engineering, manufacturing, and test capabilities for our Neutron team.”

Neutron is a reusable booster specifically designed to deploy large constellations of satellites. Rocket Lab has built the Neutron’s main production facility in Virginia near the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), where the rocket will be launched.

Rocket Lab also has its headquarters and production facilities in Long Beach. The company launches Electron boosters from MARS and its spaceport on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand.

“The successful bid does not include the purchase of Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747 aircraft, launch vehicles or mobile launch assets for its rockets, or other Virgin Orbit facilities, inventory, and assets,” the company said.

Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket ignites moments after being released by carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl for the company's Launch Demo 2 mission. January 17th, 2021.
Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket ignites moments after being released by carrier aircraft Cosmic Girl for the company’s Launch Demo 2 mission. January 17th, 2021. Image credit: Virgin Orbit.

In practice, Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747, Cosmic Girl, dropped LauncherOne over the ocean, where it ignited to take satellites into orbit.

Stratolaunch, which air launches hypersonic vehicles using a twin-fuselage Roc aircraft, bid $17 million for Cosmic Girl. Stratolaunch has not commented on its plans for Cosmic Girl. The company’s bid did not include the LauncherOne boosters.

In a court filing on Tuesday, Virgin Orbit said it elected not to continue the auction for inventory at its manufacturing and payload integration facilities in Long Beach.

“Accordingly, no Successful Bidder or Next-Highest Bidder has been selected for such Assets at this time. Further, the Debtors reserve all rights to exercise their business judgment and fiduciary duties with respect to the Assets,” the company said in its filing.

The decision leaves the future of partially finished LauncherOne rockets uncertain. The booster compiled a record of four successes and two failures over the past three years.

Launcher, which is a propulsion company, bid $2.7 million for Virgin Orbit’s engine test facilities and equipment at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. In February, the company was acquired by Vast, a California company that earlier this month announced plans to launch a private space station in 2025.

Virgin Orbit also has a provisional agreement to sell payload processing machinery and equipment to INLIPER Acquisition and Liquidity Services Operations for $650,000. The sale is subject to the finalization of documentation, the court filing said.

Virgin Orbit declared bankruptcy on April 4 after laying off all but 100 of its 775 employees. The company struggled for years with growing losses, a low launch rate, failed launches, and tepid interest from investors.

Virgin Orbit released a statement on Tuesday that it will cease operations once the auction results are approved by the court.

“Throughout its history, Virgin Orbit has been at the forefront of innovation and has made substantial contributions to the field of commercial rocket launch with its LauncherOne air launch platform. The Company’s cutting-edge technology, unmatched expertise, and commitment to excellence have propelled it to the vanguard of an emerging commercial launch industry.

“As Virgin Orbit embarks on this path, the management and employees would like to extend their heartfelt gratitude to all stakeholders, including customers, partners, investors, and employees, for their support and dedication over the years. It is through their collective efforts that the Company has been able to achieve significant milestones and make lasting contributions to the advancement of satellite launch in the United States and the United Kingdom.

“Virgin Orbit’s legacy in the space industry will forever be remembered. 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.”

The United States Bankruptcy Court in Delaware will hold a sales hearing on Wednesday, May 24 at 2 PM EDT.

2 responses to “Rocket Lab Plans to Further Neutron Program With Virgin Orbit Assets but Grounds LauncherOne”

  1. lopan says:

    I wonder what value RL sees in the VO facility. Hopefully they’ll say more eventually.

    • duheagle says:

      The value, I think, is in the sizable factory near to their current Long Beach facilities that also comes with a lot of expensive machine tools useful for the manufacture of turbo-pump-fed liquid propellant rocket engines of appreciable size – something RL is going to need for Neutron. At fire-sale prices, the acquisition seems like a no-brainer to me.

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