With the news that Virgin Orbit’s dreams of flying rockets to space with a Boeing 747 have been shattered, what’s next for the UK’s first Spaceport?

Virgin-Orbit-88 Ignition of Cosmic Girl and Launcher One
Photo: Virgin Orbit

The Richard Branson-backed venture, Virgin Orbit, has officially entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the US after funding ran dry. Its failed mission to launch a rocket into space from a Boeing 747 in January, the first for Spaceport Cornwall, proved to be the tipping point that sent it into a financial black hole.

Chief executive of the company, Dan Hart, commented on the filing,

“While we have taken great efforts to address our financial position and secure additional financing, we ultimately must do what is best for the business. We believe that the cutting-edge launch technology that this team has created will have wide appeal to buyers as we continue in the process to sell the company.

“At this stage, we believe that the Chapter 11 process represents the best path forward to identify and finalize an efficient and value-maximizing sale.”

Chapter 11 generally gives companies a chance to raise funds and restructure without completely shutting up shop. Just a week prior, the firm revealed it would be cutting 85% of its workforce, and is now seeking a buyer for its assets.

Virgin Orbit Boeing 747-400 flight testing

Photo: Virgin Orbit

What does this mean for the UK’s first Spaceport?

As the UK’s first operational Spaceport, the Cornish facility, located on the same site as Cornwall Airport Newquay, had the eyes of the world on it for the momentous January launch. Sadly, Start Me Up did not succeed – Virgin Orbit said a dislodged fuel filter meant the engine overheated in the rocket, causing the loss of the vessel and the payloads it was carrying.

While the Cornwall failure was largely down to misfortune, the loss of Virgin Orbit at the facility has to be a blow. However, the head of the Spaceport, Melissa Quinn, remains optimistic about the future, telling Simple Flying,

“We are saddened to hear the news from Virgin Orbit. We wish the very best for all of the team who have been affected. Spaceport Cornwall continues to operate with no direct impact to the team or project. As the UK’s only licensed Spaceport we continue to grow the space cluster in Cornwall.”

melissa quinn head of spaceport cornwall

Photo: Spaceport Cornwall

The Spaceport notes that there are more than 55 space companies already in Cornwall, ranging from Avanti to Goonhilly to Exobotics and many more. The facility will continue to provide a space for companies like these to grow and thrive, but with no more Virgin Orbit, who exactly will be taking off from Cornwall for space?

Is there a market for horizontal launch?

Virgin Orbit is not the first company to chase down the horizontal launch dream. Back in 1990, Orbital Sciences launched its Pegasus rocket under a B-52, and later using a Lockheed L-1011. This, too, launched satellites into space, and although it hasn’t flown since 2021, it could be resurrected if there is a business case.

Based at the UK’s up-and-coming Prestwick Spaceport near Glasgow, Astraius is developing technology to launch a rocket from a Boeing C-17 transport plane. Unlike the Virgin Orbit LauncherOne technology, the idea behind this is that the rocket will slide out of the cargo bay with a parachute, before igniting and heading to space.

Astraius C-17 for horizontal rocket launches

Photo: Astraius

Other projects in development include Orbit Boy, which plans to launch rockets from an Ilyushin Il-76, using much the same method as LauncherOne. However, Spaceport Cornwall’s Melissa Quinn noted one particular company of interest, saying,

“We are working directly with other launch operators worldwide, including Sierra Space, in developing our launch operations to meet current and future needs.”

Sierra Space is the developer of Dream Chaser, a horizontally launched space plane capable of taking cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and landing softly back on a runway. In the future, it is hoped it will be able to carry up to seven crew to the ISS also, and it’s set to begin operations later this year. Previously, Spaceport Cornwall told Orbital Today that it had signed an MoU with Sierra Space to act as a landing site for its missions.

Sierra Space Dream Chaser space plane

Photo: Sierra Space

Far from the end for Spaceport Cornwall

Although the loss of Virgin Orbit will certainly be a blow to the Spaceport, it’s far from the end for the facility. With a focus on horizontal launches, the playing field remains wide open for new entrants and innovations in the space. And launching into space isn’t the only focus of the Spaceport, as Melissa explained,

“As well as this, we are based at an active airport, and our focus extends beyond launch – we are opening a new facility to support global space and satellite businesses, all of whom will have access to our Integration Facility, R&D workspace and labs.”

While we may not see another launch from the Spaceport in Cornwall this year, wider activities are ongoing and hopes are high that more flying customers will arrive in the years to come.

Source: Orbital Today

Source: simpleflying.com

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