Virgin Orbit delays first U.K. launch

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WASHINGTON — Just days after setting a launch date for its first launch from the United Kingdom, Virgin Orbit announced Dec. 8 it was delaying that mission for weeks because of technical and regulatory issues.

In a statement provided to SpaceNews, Virgin Orbit Chief Executive Dan Hart said the company’s “Start Me Up” mission from Spaceport Cornwall in southwestern England, which had been set for as soon as Dec. 14, would be delayed “for the coming weeks.”

“With licenses still outstanding for the launch itself and for the satellites within the payload, additional technical work needed to establish system health and readiness, and a very limited available launch window of only two days,” he said, “we have determined that it is prudent to retarget launch for the coming weeks to allow ourselves and our stakeholders time to pave the way for full mission success.”

The company did not elaborate on the technical work needed for the flight. The LauncherOne system, including the rocket and its Boeing 747 carrier aircraft, have been at the spaceport since October, and the plane conducted a flight Dec. 2 as a dress rehearsal of the mission profile for the launch.

Spaceport Cornwall, located at Cornwall Airport Newquay, received a spaceport license from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), the U.K. launch regulator, Nov. 16. However, Virgin Orbit has yet to receive a launch license from the CAA, and the U.S.-based company may also require a launch license from the Federal Aviation Administration.

In a Nov. 7 earnings call, Hart said the CAA licensing was taking longer than Virgin Orbit expected, which he said was caused, at least in part, by being the first company to go through the new U.K. launch licensing process. “The good news is that we don’t see a showstopper or a big issue we’re working,” he said then. “But, it is taking longer than we had anticipated and it is taking a bit more effort than we anticipated as well.”

In a separate statement, the CAA argued it was not to blame for the launch delay. “The U.K. space regulation process is not a barrier to a U.K. space launch,” said Tim Johnson, director for space regulation at the CAA. “Virgin Orbit has said in its statement this morning that there are some technical issues that will need to be resolved before launch. These in no way relate to the timing of when a license will be issued by the Civil Aviation Authority.”

The announcement of the delay came less than 48 hours after the company advised reporters it was preparing for a launch as soon as Dec. 14. That launch, though, could slip to Dec. 15 or 16 “or later,” a spokesperson for the company said in a Dec. 6 email.

Virgin Orbit did not give an estimate of a new launch date for the mission beyond “the coming weeks,” although one industry source said it was unlikely the launch would take place before the end of the year. That would mean Virgin Orbit will end the year with just two launches, after estimating at the start of 2022 it would conduct as many as six.

The lack of launch activity and revenue from it has raised new questions about the company’s finances. Virgin Orbit said in its Nov. 7 earnings call that it ended the third quarter with $71 million of cash on hand, but had raised $25 million from Virgin Group earlier in the month. The company reported an EBITDA loss of $42.9 million in the quarter.

Virgin Orbit said Nov. 23 that while it had evaluated the possibility of conducting a secondary offering to raise funds, it decided not to do so because of current market conditions. It added that any later plans to raise capital “will depend upon future market conditions.”