Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit adds to space investing liftoff

Billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Orbit is celebrating its business combination with special purpose acquisition company NextGen Acquisition Corp. II, which values the company at approximately $3 billion. 

Virgin Orbit CEO Dan Hart, tells FOX Business, the company has plenty of runway to execute its future plans. 

“What sets us apart, in part, is that we actually have pulled ourselves across from an aspirational company into an operational company where we are putting customers into space, we’re partnering with our customers as well and their services,” Hart said. “So there’s just a lot going on and a bright future over the next few months as we ramp up.”

Shares of Virgin Orbit, which began trading under the ticker symbol VORB earlier this week, jumped over 20% on Friday. 

Ticker Security Last Change Change %
VORB NEXTGEN ACQUISITION II 7.69 +1.20 +18.55%
SPCE VIRGIN GALACTIC HOLDINGS INC. 12.64 +0.86 +7.30%

Branson’s other space company, Virgin Galactic, also rose. 

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The company raised $228 million in gross proceeds through the transaction, including $68 million in trust and $160 million from a fully committed PIPE from investors including Boeing, AE Industrial Partners, Virgin Group, Mubadala Investment Company and NextGen’s sponsor. 

Virgin Orbit has successfully launched 19 satellites to date and serves customers across the civil, commercial, international and national security segments. The company is planning for a total of six launches in 2022. Its upcoming Above the Clouds mission, which carry satellites from the U.S. Department of Defense, SatRevolution and Spire Global, will open its launch window no earlier than Jan. 12. 

Virgin Orbit uses a technique called air launch, in which its 70-foot-long, 57,000-pound LauncherOne rocket is released at an altitude of 35,000 feet from under the wing of a modified 747-400 jet aircraft, dubbed Cosmic Girl, rather than from a tradi (Virgin Orbit)

Virgin Orbit uses a technique called air launch, in which its 70-foot-long, 57,000-pound LauncherOne rocket is released at an altitude of 35,000 feet from under the wing of a modified 747-400 jet aircraft, dubbed Cosmic Girl, rather than from a traditional launch pad on the ground. After a four-second freefall, LauncherOne’s first stage engine ignites, accelerating the rocket to approximately 8,000 miles per hour. From there, the second stage engine kicks in, taking LauncherOne to a maximum speed of 17,500 miles per hour.

In addition to improving the payload capacity of the rocket, the technique allows LauncherOne to fly on short notice from a wide variety of locations. LauncherOne, which costs an average of $12 million per flight or $40,000 per kilogram, can carry satellite payloads weighing between 300 and 500 kilograms. 

“We have created a new technology that’s differentiated,” Hart says. “Using an aircraft to take your first leg of your journey to space has environmental benefits in terms of not polluting the surrounding area. It has economic benefits in that the airplane does a lot of the work for the rocket, makes a simpler and less expensive rocket and it has incredible flexibility that is important as countries build their space programs.”

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Beyond the Above the Clouds mission, Virgin Orbit has signed new agreements for more than 30 launches with customers including Japan’s All Nippon Airways, HyperSat, Horizon Technologies, SatRevolution and Arqit. 

ANA Holdings will procure 20 LauncherOne flights and create a new spaceport in Japan’s Oita region by the end of 2022, pending regulatory approval. Virgin Orbit has also reached agreements to bring LauncherOne to Brazil and the United Kingdom, where it will fly out of Spaceport Cornwall in 2022. 

In an investor presentation in October, Virgin Orbit estimated it will bring in $70 million in revenue by the end of 2022, with more than 50% expected to come from active contracts. The company has roughly $300 million in active contracts, $1.3 billion in active proposals and $2.3 billion in other identified opportunities. Virgin Orbit expects to reach profitability in 2024. 

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As the commercial space industry ramps up, Hart is calling for more funding from organizations like the United Nations to make infrastructure improvements to satellites and to create what he refers to as space traffic control. 

“If you compare the amount of massive satellites that are flying to the amount of airplanes to fly in any given day, it’s much less,” Hart notes. “But the difference is the technology that’s been applied, the international investment, collaboration and cooperation on norms of behavior and how we fly hasn’t happened to the extent in space as we have in aircraft, and we really need to move that forward.” 

The call comes as China recently warned of near-miss collisions with Starlink satellites from Elon Musk’s SpaceX. SpaceX has launched over 1,000 Starlink satellites to date, with the goal of providing internet service worldwide. Starlink has more than 145,000 users in 25 countries worldwide.