Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket at Spaceport Cornwall, at Cornwall Airport in Newquay

Virgin Orbit ceases operations; UK Space Agency announces £50m space fund

Image credit: UK Space Agency/PA Wire

In contrasting news for the UK space industry, it has been confirmed that Virgin Orbit will permanently cease operations, following its failed rocket launch earlier this year. Meanwhile, the UK Space Agency has launched a £50m fund to support the development of cutting-edge research and development facilities.

Virgin Orbit has announced that it is selling its assets and will cease operations months after its inaugural mission, launched from Spaceport Cornwall in the UK, ended in failure in January.

In a statement, the “responsive space launch provider” said: “(Our) legacy in the space industry will forever be remembered. Its ground-breaking technologies, relentless pursuit of excellence and unwavering commitment to advancing the frontiers of air launch have left an indelible mark on the industry.”

Sir Richard Branson’s California-based company will now sell its assets to four winning bidders.

The statement continued: “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”.

Virgin Orbit said in March that it would cut 85 per cent of its workforce after failing to secure new investment. The company subsequently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the US in April.

Founded in 2017, the company developed rockets to carry satellites. The group, listed in New York in 2021, has struggled for profitability and been weighed down by its significant debt pile. As of September 2022, the company had debts of $153.5m (£123m).

In January this year, the group had sought to complete the first satellite launch from UK soil, with hopes that the mission would be a major stepping stone for space exploration from the UK.

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

Virgin Orbit's LauncherOne rocket at Spaceport Cornwall, at Cornwall Airport in Newquay

Image credit: UK Space Agency/PA Wire

The turbulence surrounding Virgin Orbit also led to the personal fortune of its owner, Sir Richard, shrinking by £1.8bn in 12 months - more than 40 per cent of his estimated worth. The Virgin business empire as a whole - including the travel arm, inevitably - suffered significant losses during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In related news, earlier this month the head of Spaceport Cornwall, Melissa Quinn, announced her departure from the role after two years at the helm. Quinn's exit comes soon after the ultimate failure of Virgin Orbit’s much-heralded first rocket launch from Cornwall. Quinn first joined the Spaceport team in 2014.

Meanwhile, turning to the future for the wider UK space industry, the government has announced the first dedicated government fund to build space infrastructure.

Launching with a £50m fund, the UK Space Agency is seeking to support the development of cutting-edge research and development facilities, according to a government alert issued today.

The 'Space Clusters and Infrastructure Fund' (SCIF) will award match funding to UK organisations to develop the R&D infrastructure needed to make space products mission-ready and sell them into commercial markets.

Investment in space R&D infrastructure is viewed as essential for building and testing new UK space and satellite capabilities, supporting innovative missions that can benefit people, businesses and communities across the country.

George Freeman, the minister of state at the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology, said: "The UK space industry - worth £17.5bn to the UK economy and creating new companies and careers all around the country from Glasgow Space City to Spaceport Cornwall - is a key part of the UK Innovation Economy.

"This £50m Space Clusters and Infrastructure Fund is the UK’s first fund dedicated to support the space industry develop the R&D facilities key to growing the space clusters across the UK, helping to generate investment, create jobs and enable UK space companies’ cutting-edge technology to be made mission-ready for new commercial satellite markets".

The funding will be available to industry and academia who can deliver projects to procure, build or upgrade R&D facilities and equipment that will bring high-potential, high-value space technologies to market. SCIF has been deemed a pilot project, intended to support approximately 5-10 projects of up to £10m each.

These projects will hopefully provide critical anchor points at the local level for new businesses, investment and research and could create hundreds of jobs in areas of the UK that need it most.

Dr Paul Bate, chief executive of the UK Space Agency, said: "The UK has a thriving space sector, which is well-established and globally respected. We are growing this exciting sector further, by catalysing investment, delivering missions and capabilities and championing the power of space to improve lives.

"The Space Clusters and Infrastructure Fund demonstrates the government’s commitment to space and will help deliver the ambition set out in the National Space Strategy to build one of the most innovative and attractive space economies in the world, developing new skills and creating jobs".

The government has stated that its national ambition towards 'Levelling Up' is a priority for the UK Space Agency. Accordingly, the SCIF will allocate the majority of its budget outside of the greater south-east region, although proposals are welcome from anywhere in the UK.

Lizzie Kerr, director of UKspace, the industry trade association, said: "R&D underpins so much of the UK space industry’s activities and continued innovation. UKspace therefore welcomes this funding commitment from the government which has the potential to impact many of our members, by developing and renewing facilities, and bringing growth and employment across the UK".

The UK Space Agency’s funding for national projects, including SCIF, is in addition to £1.84bn invested through the European Space Agency in November 2022, aimed at ensuring the UK’s space and commercial satellite sector plays a leading role in future international missions and commercial programmes.

Further information about the 'Announcement of Opportunity: Space Cluster Infrastructure Funding Call' is available from the website.

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