Virgin Orbit looks beyond satellite launch for growth opportunities

By Jeff Froust,
Published by SpaceNews, 30 March 2022

WASHINGTON — Small launch vehicle company Virgin Orbit says it sees opportunities not just in satellite launch but also in hypersonics as it looks to increase its revenue.

In its first financial results since going public in December after a merger with a special purpose acquisition corporation (SPAC), Virgin Orbit announced March 29 a net loss of $157.3 million for 2021 on $7.4 million in revenue. That compared to a net loss of $121.6 million on $3.8 million in revenue in 2020.

Despite the significant loss, the company emphasized in an earnings call the increase in revenue, primarily from two LauncherOne missions conducted in 2021, as well as a slight improvement in adjusted earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA). Virgin Orbit reported an adjusted EBITDA of –$140.4 million in 2021 versus –$157.5 million in 2020.

Dan Hart, chief executive of Virgin Orbit, noted the growing interest in the company’s air-launch system, including from national security and international customers. The company said its backlog grew from $86 million at the end of 2020 to $575 million at the end of 2021, although only $152 million of that was in the form of binding agreements.

Hart said the company is planning four to six launches this year, compared to six the company forecast in January. The first of those launches took place Jan. 13, placing seven cubesats into orbit. The next, which the company described as a “national security-focused mission,” is scheduled for the second quarter. That will be followed by the first LauncherOne mission from Spaceport Cornwall in England.

Virgin Orbit, though, is looking beyond satellite launch. Hart said the company recently concluded a study for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency “that underlines the utility of our system for missile defense targets and other uses.”

He also played up the role the company could play in hypersonics. “We are seeing increased momentum for the use of the system to support hypersonic R&D,” he said. The company has had discussions with companies that are working on hypersonic technologies.

He didn’t go into details about those discussions, but suggested that the interest is in using the LauncherOne system as a boost stage for hypersonic vehicles. “Our system is a bit of a simpler mousetrap, if you will, for the current test systems that are out there that use B-52 aircraft and things of that nature,” he said. “We’re aware there have been some booster issues in the hypersonic research arena. It’s likely an area we can help with.”

The earnings call was not the first time Virgin Orbit has mentioned potential roles in missile defense and hypersonics. Speaking at Deutsche Bank’s 30th Annual Media, Internet & Telecom Conference March 15, Hart discussed opportunities for the company in those areas. “We can be a utility for missile defense, for hypersonics and other R&D efforts,” he said. “On targets alone the United States spends over half a billion dollars a year.”

“We’ve had some discussions and we have some more planned in D.C. to talk about that,” he added of hypersonics opportunities at that event.

Virgin Orbit raised $228 million in its SPAC merger, less than half of the amount it anticipated when it announced the deal in August 2021. The company announced it had $194.2 million in cash and cash equivalents on hand as of the end of 2021, “leaving us well-positioned to progress on our growth objectives in 2022,” said Brita O’Rear, chief financial officer of Virgin Orbit.

The company has established a “standby equity purchase agreement” with Yorkville Advisors, a hedge fund, to sell up to $250 million in equity over three years. “This instrument can provide us with access to capital to execute our business plan and respond to opportunities as they appear in the market,” she said.

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