Toowoomba Airport’s plan to become a 747 rocket launch site could be in doubt after Virgin Orbit paused its operation and reportedly stood down staff.
It follows the company’s inaugural overseas launch failing earlier this year in the UK, and the business reporting an operating loss of $US149 million for the first nine months of 2022.
Virgin Orbit is the successor to a project begun by Virgin Galactic and uses a modified Boeing 747-400 aircraft to launch payloads into space from mid-air. It had targeted launches from Toowoomba within three years.
However, on Thursday, Bloomberg reported nearly all Virgin Orbit staff were furloughed for the week in an attempt to buy time to finalise a new investment plan.
“Virgin Orbit is initiating a company-wide operational pause, effective March 16, 2023, and anticipates providing an update on go-forward operations in the coming weeks,” a spokesperson confirmed.
It follows the high-profile failure of its launch in Cornwall, in the south-west of England, thought to have been caused by a fuel filter that dislodged mid-launch.
January’s launch was the first outside the company’s home airport in the Mojave Desert, California, and received significant backing from the British government.
It resulted in the loss of all of the payloads that were bound for orbit, including a UK Ministry of Defence satellite and a US Naval Research Laboratory payload.
The UK government announced in mid-January that the UK’s Space Accident Investigation Authority and the FAA would jointly lead the investigation.
The 747 rocket launch idea works because the legendary Boeing aircraft has a little-known capacity to attach a fifth engine, enabling it to carry a rocket. After the satellites are fitted underneath the rocket’s nose — or fairing — the projectile is attached underneath the left wing of the Jumbo Jet.
The aircraft takes off and cruises upwards to its launch position at around 35,000 feet.
“The pilot then pulls up on the 747 to a 30-degree angle because we want the rocket facing the right direction, and we want a bit of upward pitch,” CEO Dan Hart told Australian Aviation in an exclusive interview last year.
“The other pilot, at the right moment, pushes a button on the panel of the cockpit to release the rocket, which drops — or glides — for about four or five seconds until it’s safely able to start its engines.”
Seconds afterwards, the 747 banks right to stay clear of the rocket’s path.
Australian Aviation took an exclusive look at Virgin Orbit’s plan in our summer issue, which includes an interview with CEO Dan Hart. To find out more and subscribe, click here.