Abu Dhabi Company To Invest in Virgin Galactic

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PARIS – An Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, investment company has agreed to invest $280 million in Virgin Group’s Virgin Galactic commercial space plane venture. The company, Aabar Investments PJSC, will take a 32 percent ownership share of Virgin Galactic and wants to develop the venture’s satellite launch potential in addition to its better-known suborbital space tourism business, Virgin and Aabar announced July 28.

The agreement, which values Virgin Galactic at $875 million, is part of what Aabar said is a broader program in which Abu Dhabi authorities will invest in a spaceport for Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft and its SpaceShipTwo vehicle. WhiteKnightTwo’s public flying debut was July 28 at the EEA AirVenture air show in Oshkosh, Wis.

Virgin Group Chief Executive Sir Richard Branson and Aabar Chief Executive Mohamed Badawy Al-Husseiny signed the investment deal at the Oshkosh show July 28. The investment is pending approval of U.S. authorities because Virgin Galactic is a U.S.-registered company. In addition, Aabar’s longer-term plans to build a Virgin Galactic spaceport will need to be cleared by U.S. technology-export regulators.

Aabar has also agreed to make an additional $100 million investment in Virgin Galactic to adapt WhiteKnightTwo to launch small satellites into low Earth orbit. That investment is pending completion of a business plan.

Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn said in a July 28 interview that the Aabar investment means the company has sufficient cash to carry it through to the first commercial flight of the WhiteKnightTwo carrier and the SpaceShipTwo spaceplane, now scheduled for 2011.

Virgin Group has invested about $130 million so far in Virgin Galactic, and Whitehorn said the company is sticking with its earlier estimates that the total capital expenditure needed, including the first commercial flight, will be $350 million to $400 million.

Whitehorn said the company had been assured by Virgin Group of continued support and that it had not been desperate to find a second major investor.

“Virgin would have continued to finance us to flight,” Whitehorn said. “What we have been doing is speaking to a very small number of strategic investors, some of whom approached us because they wanted to build a WhiteKnightTwo spaceport. What we would not have funded immediately is the satellite launch capability, which Aabar has agreed to do when we complete the business plan.”

Virgin Galactic has collected some $40 million in deposits from about 300 prospective space tourists, a sum that represents about $60 million in ticket sales at a price of $200,000 per seat.

Aabar Investments PJSC has a broad investment portfolio and is traded on the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange. Its biggest shareholder is International Petroleum Investment Co., which is wholly owned by the Abu Dhabi government.