Constellations, Launch, New Space and more…

Virgin Orbit Sells Remaining Assets to Firefly Aerospace

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
June 16, 2023
Filed under , , , ,
Virgin Orbit Sells Remaining Assets to Firefly Aerospace
Cosmic Girl in flight.
Image credit: Virgin Orbit.

Firefly Aerospace has agreed to purchase bankrupt Virgin Orbit’s remaining assets for $3.8 million, marking an end to company founder Richard Branson’s ambitious effort to become a leading provider of satellite launch services.

Firefly Aerospace has developed its Alpha rocket to launch small satellites into orbit from a fixed, ground-based launch pad. The company is developing the Medium Launch Vehicle (MLV) for larger payloads, which is expected to begin flying in 2025. Seven Miranda rocket engines developed for MLV will also power the first stage of Northrop Grumman’s upgraded Antares 330 launch vehicle.

It’s not clear exactly what Firefly will do with the assets it is acquiring from Virgin Orbit. LauncherOne is not a ground-based rocket; it was carried aloft by a modified Boeing 747 named Cosmic Girl and dropped over the ocean before igniting its first-stage engine.

Conceptual rendering of Stratolaunch 747 air-launch vehicle, in launch configuration with the reusable Talon-A hypersonic testbed.
Conceptual rendering of Stratolaunch 747 air-launch vehicle, in launch configuration with the reusable Talon-A hypersonic testbed. Image credit: Stratolaunch.

Stratolaunch purchased Cosmic Girl and related assets for $17 million in an auction on May 12. Three other companies scooped up assets at the time. Virgin Orbit elected not to sell its launcher inventory at the time.

Stratolaunch said it would use the aircraft in its development of air-launched hypersonic vehicles. Stratolaunch is currently using the twin-fuselage Roc aircraft to drop hypersonic test vehicles.

Sources have confirmed to Parabolic Arc that there were previous discussions in 2016 about using Stratolaunch’s Roc to launch satellites using a version of Firefly’s Alpha rocket. Nothing came of the talks. Firefly was known as Firefly Space Systems at the time, and Stratolaunch Launch Systems was under the control of Paul Allen’s Vulcan Aerospace company. Allen founded Stratolaunch with Scaled Composites’ Founder Burt Rutan.

Stratolaunch and Talon-0
Stratolaunch successfully releases the Talon-0 (TA-0) separation test vehicle from its Roc air-launch platform on May 13, 2023. Image credit: Stratolaunch/Christian Turner.

Firefly declared bankruptcy in 2017, and reemerged under new ownership as Firefly Aerospace. Allen passed away from cancer in October 2018, and his estate sold Stratolaunch to Cerberus Capital Management the following year. The new owners abandoned plans to launch satellites from Roc and were in favor of testing hypersonic vehicles.

Virgin Orbit’s Demise

In total, Virgin Orbit was able to obtain under $40.3 million for its assets from the May auction and the sale to Firefly. It is estimated that the company spent close to $1.5 billion developing its small satellite launch system.

Virgin Orbit Assets Purchasers

StratolaunchBoeing 747 Cosmic Girl & related assetsLong Beach, California$17,000,000
Rocket Lab USALaunch vehicle production machinery & equipment, and building leaseLong Beach, California$16,118,684
Firefly AerospaceLauncherOne rocket engines and components Long Beach & Mojave, California$3,800,000
LauncherEngine test facility lease, machinery & equipment, and inventoryMojave, California$2,700,000
INLIPER Acquisition and Liquidity
Services Operations
Office equipment and furnishingsLong Beach, California$650,000

Virgin Orbit had struggled for years with growing operational losses, failed launches, a low flight cadence, and tepid investor interest before declaring bankruptcy earlier this year

The idea of air launching satellites originated at Virgin Orbit’s sister company, Virgin Galactic, during the 2000s. The original plan was to use the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft that’s already used to launch SpaceShipTwo suborbital space planes. The company subsequently switched to developing a larger rocket that would be dropped from a modified Boeing 747, and Virgin Orbit spun off as a separate company in 2017.

LauncherOne failed on its maiden flight in May 2020 when a propellant line broke seconds after the first-stage engine ignited. Virgin Galactic successfully launched two times in 2021.

Virgin Orbit went public on the NASDAQ stock exchange on Dec. 30, 2021, through a merger with NextGen Acquisition Corp, a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC). A SPAC is an investment fund already traded on a stock exchange whose main purpose is to merge with a company, which is then taken public under its own name.

The SPAC merger raised only $228 million in new funds, which was less than half the $483 million Virgin Orbit and NextGen expected to raise.

The company had hoped to launch as many as six times in 2022. However, it only managed two launches last year as losses piled up and cash reserves dwindled.

Virgin Orbit Operating Losses & Revenues, 2020-2022

YearOperating LossRevenue
* Source: Virgin Orbit SEC filings

Branson’s Virgin Investments Ltd. (VIL) put $25 million into the launch provider in November and $20 million in December. During that period, Virgin Orbit said it would not sell additional stock to the public due to poor market conditions.

LauncherOne failed again in January 2023 during a launch that originated from the Cornwall Newquay Airport in England. The much-publicized flight was to have been the first successful orbital launch from the United Kingdom.

VIL would invest an additional $15 million into Virgin Orbit in February and March 2023 to keep the struggling company afloat. Virgin Orbit furloughed nearly its entire staff in mid-March to reduce expenses as it searched for a financial lifeline. After those efforts failed, the company laid off all but 100 of its 775 employees before declaring bankruptcy on April 4.

One response to “Virgin Orbit Sells Remaining Assets to Firefly Aerospace”

  1. patb2009 says:

    Did the Virgin Orbit IP get sold?
    It appeared that the auction was entirely for “Physical Assets” and “Contracts”. Leases, test stands,
    materials.. I wasn’t able to see if the designs, and analysis and documentation sold at auction

Leave a Reply