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Virgin Orbit ‘pauses’ operations in wake of UK space launch failure

Virgin Orbit has “paused” its operations to deal with a funding crisis, weeks after its failed UK space launch from Cornwall.

The California-based company has faced financial issues since January’s failure, as well as questions about the damage it might have done to Britain’s plans to become a space hub.

It did not confirm reports staff have been furloughed while it seeks a cash lifeline.

A Virgin Orbit modified Boeing 747s carried a rocket into the air with a view to shooting it into space – but an “anomaly” meant the rocket failed to get into orbit and instead broke up in the sky. The rocket components and payload fell back to Earth but all satellites onboard were lost.

It blamed the accident on a fuel filter that became dislodged during the launch, causing an engine to overheat.

In a statement on Thursday, the company said: “Virgin Orbit is initiating a company-wide operational pause ... and anticipates providing an update on go-forward operations in the coming weeks.”

A spokesperson added: “On the ops side, our investigation is nearly complete and our next production rocket with the needed modification incorporated is in the final stages of integration and test.”

Spaceport Cornwall, which is owned by Cornwall Council and based at Newquay Airport, said it was working with other space firms to secure its future.

Councillor Louis Gardner, portfolio holder for the economy, said: “It is clearly a difficult time for the Virgin Orbit team as they navigate the next stage of their company, and we will await further information from them as events unfold.

“Our focus at Spaceport Cornwall is to continue to grow the space cluster in Cornwall, alongside progressing relationships with spaceflight operators.

“We remain the only licensed spaceport in the UK and our plan is to build on that position.”

Steve Double, Conservative MP for St Austell and Newquay, told BBC Radio Cornwall: “It's clearly disappointing but Spaceport Cornwall was never just about Virgin Orbit. It was always about having a facility that other operators could use."

He said that work had been going on “for many many months behind the scenes with other potential operators in the future.”

The site at Newquay is the only spaceport in the UK with a licence, although a vertical launch spaceport is currently being developed at a site in Scotland. It is expected to have its first launch by the end of the year.