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Psst... Wanna buy some stock in a spaceplane company? Virgin would like a word

Also: China trumpets the return of its new capsule and Cygnus has left the station

Roundup Welcome to your weekly reminder that space is both expensive and difficult in The Register's roundup of all things rockety.

Richard Branson to sell off Virgin Galactic shares

Even as the Twitter orifice of Virgin Galactic was celebrating the milestone of a SpaceShipTwo glide into Spaceport America, the boss of the outfit was preparing to sell off 25 million shares via Virgin Group subsidiary Vieco 10.

The filing, made with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), pointed to the last reported price per share (listed on the New York Stock Exchange) as being $20.18, which could result in a cool $500m heading Vieco 10's way.

The money raised will not be funnelled back to Virgin Galactic. Noting that "Vieco 10 is a subsidiary of Virgin Group", the filing states that the group plans to use its share of the proceeds to prop up "its portfolio of global leisure, holiday and travel businesses that have been affected by the unprecedented impact of COVID-19."

The airline elements of Branson's empire have certainly taken a bit of a battering of late.

Unsurprisingly, the stock price of Virgin Galactic took a bit of a dive after the filing, dropping to $19 before recovering a little.

The wannabe space tourist flyer also reported its first quarter 2020 financial results, which showed a precipitous drop in revenue from $1.78m this time last year to $0.24m for the first quarter of 2020. Net loss also increased, from $42.59m to $59.93m. The company, did however, report that it had taken in more than 400 deposit payments for its "One Small Step" initiative, which it reckoned could convert to over $100m of future business. Virgin Galactic already has a customer base of 600 "Future Astronauts", all waiting for the moment when Branson's glider starts flying passengers as well as employees.

Chinese capsule makes a controlled landing. Its carrier rocket? Not so much

There was good and not so good news for fans of China's crewed spaceflight ambitions as the country's latest take on a capsule made a successful, uncrewed, touchdown in the Dongfeng landing site.

The spacecraft had spent two days and 19 hours in orbit before its return to Earth, during which technology such as the heat shield and parachutes were tested.

Chinese boffins are aiming for "partial reuse." Handy, because the country has grand plans for its new toy, from building a space station in Low Earth Orbit to something a little more ambitious: crewed lunar exploration.

Things did not go quite so well for the Long March 5b carrier rocket, tasked with lofting the spacecraft. While the launch went well, the remains of the rocket made an uncontrolled re-entry a few days later.

Calling to mind the fate of Skylab, which smacked into Australia, the massive core stage (weighing in at a reported 20 metric tons) is one of the largest objects to make such a re-entry in recent years, and observers spent a nervous few hours wondering where it would meet its end. Astronomer Jonathan McDowell observed: "I've never seen a major reentry pass directly over so many major conurbations!"

While China does have form when it comes to dropping spent stages on urban areas, McDowell also pointed out that the re-entry was not under Chinese control and was instead "totally dependent on space weather over the past few days."

As it turned out, whatever survived re-entry met a watery end in the Atlantic Ocean. With more launches planned to support the assembly of a space station, we can but hope that the fate of subsequent stages is a little more controlled.

Cygnus departs the ISS

Northrop Grumman's Cygnus freighter was released by the International Space Station's (ISS) Canadarm2 yesterday, marking the end of a near three-month stay at the outpost. Dubbed the "SS Robert H. Lawrence" the spacecraft arrived at the ISS on 18 Feb, carrying tons of supplies and experiments.

The Cygnus will spend a few more days in orbit prior to its disposal on 29 May and host the Spacecraft Fire Safety Experiment – IV (Saffire-IV), which provides an environment to safely study fire in microgravity. It will also deploy some bonus payloads in the form of cubesats aimed at improving space communications and GPS technology.

The re-entry will also mark the end of High Definition Earth Viewing (HDEV) experiment, which provided live views of Earth. HDEV arrived in the trunk of a SpaceX Dragon in 2014 and was expected to spend the next three years checking out how COTS cameras survived in space as well as piping HD video of Earth back down to viewers. As it transpired, the robotically attached box endured for five years before NASA declared it at "end of life".

HDEV has been attached, again by robotics, to the Cygnus and will burn up with the rest of the spacecraft on reentry. ®

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