Updated May 24 with Rocket Lab statement.
WASHINGTON — Three aerospace companies submitted winning bids at a bankruptcy auction for most of the assets of launch company Virgin Orbit, ending any chance that company could return to flight under new ownership.
In a May 23 filing with federal bankruptcy court in Delaware, Virgin Orbit announced that Rocket Lab, Stratolaunch, and Vast made the winning bids for separate segments of the company’s assets, including manufacturing facilities and its Boeing 747 aircraft.
Rocket Lab bid $16.1 million for the lease on Virgin Orbit’s main production facility in Long Beach, California, along with machinery and equipment there. Rocket Lab has its headquarters and a production facility just a couple blocks away in Long Beach.
Rocket Lab said in a statement that it will use the facility to support development of its Neutron rocket. It noted it was not acquiring any of the Virgin Orbit’s launch technology.
“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,” Peter Beck, chief executive of Rocket Lab, said in the statement.
Launcher, a launch vehicle company acquired by space station developer Vast in February, bid $2.7 million for Virgin Orbit’s lease on a test site in Mojave, California, along with machinery, equipment and inventory there. While Launcher discontinued plans to build a launch vehicle after the acquisition, it said it would continue work on the E-2 rocket engine it had been developing for it, planning to offer it to other customers.
The bankruptcy auction also accepted the $17 million “stalking horse” bid from Stratolaunch for Virgin Orbit’s Boeing 747 and related equipment. That bid, announced May 16, served as a minimum for the value of the overall auction. Stratolaunch currently operates its custom-designed Roc aircraft that it uses as a launch platform for hypersonic vehicles it is developing.
That 747, called “Cosmic Girl” by Virgin Orbit, took a long flight the day before the auction, flying from the Long Beach airport up the West Coast to Seattle, then heading east and south back to Long Beach. On the return leg of the trip it flew a maneuver similar to that used on LauncherOne launches, going into a “racetrack” loop and then pulling up. The company did not disclose the reason for the five-hour flight.
The auction results rule out any attempt to keep the company intact and bring it out of bankruptcy under new ownership. Virgin Orbit said May 9 it had heard from “multiple” parties who were interested in buying the entire company and resuming launch operations. It did not identify any of those parties, which were among more than 30 “indications of interest” in the company’s assets it fielded.
It was not clear if any of those parties submitted bids. The filing noted it selected no “next-highest bidders” who would be eligible to buy those assets if deals with the winning bidders fell through.
Virgin Orbit said in a May 23 statement that it would cease operations after completing the sale of the assets. It noted that the bankruptcy sale was the result of “a rigorous and competitive auction which maximizes value for the estate and minimizes the remaining duration of the Company’s restructuring.”
Sales of two other segments of Virgin Orbit assets have yet to be finalized. Machinery and equipment in another Virgin Orbit facility in Long Beach have been provisionally sold to Inliper Acquisition LLC, a liquidation company, for $650,000, pending completion of sales documentation.
Another asset, the inventory at the two Long Beach facilities, was not sold at auction. The filing stated that the company “deemed it in the best interests of the Debtors’ estates” not to sell those assets at this time. That includes several LauncherOne rockets in various stages of production.
A court hearing on the outcome of the auction is scheduled for May 24. The company did not state its plans for the remaining assets.
“Virgin Orbit’s legacy in the space industry will forever be remembered,” the company stated. “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.” Few companies are pursuing air-launch systems for orbital missions.