Virgin Orbit Auctions Assets to Space 3D Printing Ventures

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If there were any indications that Virgin Orbit could be kept operating as a single entity after going bankrupt, they have been crushed. Following a comprehensive sale process and competitive auction, the company announced that it has decided to sell its assets to four winning bidders, including Rocket Lab (Nasdaq: RKLB), Vast, and Stratolaunch, and will cease operations. The final sale hearing is scheduled for today, with the transactions expected to close shortly thereafter.

The following company statement highlights the impact that the firm’s rockets had on the new space race and the team that worked to drive its mission:

“Throughout its history, Virgin Orbit has been at the forefront of innovation and has made substantial contributions to the field of commercial rocket launch with its LauncherOne air launch platform. The Company’s cutting-edge technology, unmatched expertise, and commitment to excellence have propelled it to the vanguard of an emerging commercial launch industry.

“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. It is through their collective efforts that the Company has been able to achieve significant milestones and make lasting contributions to the advancement of satellite launch in the United States and the United Kingdom.

“Virgin Orbit’s legacy in the space industry will forever be remembered. 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.”

Turmoil

On April 4, 2023, Virgin Orbit filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and is currently undergoing a sale. This shocking announcement followed the company’s previous statement about reducing its workforce due to an inability to raise sufficient out-of-court capital to continue operating its business at the current run rate. Adding to its list of woes, the bankruptcy comes on the heels of the mission failure of LauncherOne, Virgin Orbit’s rocket designed to fly small satellites into orbit.

Upon announcing the filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, CEO Dan Hart emphasized the team’s achievement in developing and implementing a groundbreaking approach to satellite launches. LauncherOne was designed for air launch from a modified Boeing 747 jet known as Cosmic Girl and introduced numerous advantages compared to conventional rocket launches. These advantages include fuel savings, flexibility in site selection, and the ability to bypass weather-related delays.

“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,” added Hart. “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.”

A thrust chamber built in Virgin Orbit's hybrid additive machine. A NewtonThree thrust chamber is built in Virgin Orbit’s hybrid additive, subtractive manufacturing machine. Image courtesy of Virgin Orbit/Greg Robinson.

Unfortunate turn

To maximize the value of its assets during the bankruptcy process, Virgin Orbit secured $31.6 million in new money debtor-in-possession financing from Virgin Investments Limited. This financing was obtained to support the ongoing sale process.

Recent court filings reveal that Rocket Lab has acquired Virgin Orbit’s primary production facility in Long Beach, California, for $16.1 million. The acquisition includes various assets, such as 3D printers and a specialty tank welding machine. Virgin Orbit had equipped its Long Beach facility with advanced manufacturing capabilities, including a laser metal deposition Lasertec 4300 3D printer by DMG Mori. This state-of-the-art printer utilizes fused metal powder to add and subtract material, enabling the production of rocket parts, including components for the LauncherOne system. Rocket Lab intends to leverage these resources to expedite the manufacturing of rocket parts, including rocket engine components.

In a Twitter post, Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck points out that: “Virgin Orbit built a fantastic production facility with the very best equipment. We’re fortunate to have nearly completed the acquisition of this facility and equipment to help advance Neutron’s future production and reduce the overall cost of the program significantly.”

Rocket Lab plans to leverage Virgin Orbit’s Long Beach facilities and crucial manufacturing infrastructure to expedite the production of its Neutron rocket. The successful bid encompasses the lease for Virgin Orbit’s expansive 144,000-square-foot headquarters and manufacturing complex located at 4022 E. Conant St. in Long Beach, along with all associated production assets, machinery, and equipment.

The combination of these assets with Rocket Lab’s existing production, manufacturing, and testing capabilities is expected to enhance the Neutron rocket’s production significantly. It’s important to note that Rocket Lab clarified that it would not integrate Virgin Orbit’s launch system into its existing launch services, indicating a separation between the two companies offerings.

Stratolaunch submitted a $17 million “stalking horse” bid for the Boeing 747 and related equipment. This comes as no surprise since the business has already developed a massive aircraft, the Stratolaunch Carrier, which has the largest wingspan of any aircraft ever built and aims to air-launch space transportation. In another bid, rocket engine and spacecraft startup Launcher, which was acquired by developer Vast last February, bought the lease on a testing site in California’s Mojave Desert with machinery, equipment, and inventory there for $2.7 million.

Stratolaunch’s mobile launch platform to deploy high-speed vehicles into the hypersonic environment. Image courtesy of Stratolaunch via Twitter.

According to filings with the federal bankruptcy court, Virgin Orbit claims the combined total proceeds were determined by a rigorous and competitive auction that maximizes the estate’s value and minimizes the remaining duration of the company’s restructuring.

Virgin Orbit, primarily owned by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, has traded on the Nasdaq exchange under the ticker symbol VORBQ since 2021. However, due to the Chapter 11 process, Nasdaq announced it was launching delisting proceedings, insisting that the company was “not compliant” with listing rules since it still hadn’t filed its annual results for 2022. As a result, Nasdaq informed the company that its stock would be suspended on April 13, 2023, and even though Virgin Orbit said it intended to appeal Nasdaq’s decision to delist, it will not impact the upcoming suspension. As a result of the delisting, Virgin Orbit’s shares fell 22% in premarket trading at 13 cents and continued plunging days after.

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