Saudi Arabia plans to invest $1 billion in Richard Branson’s private space venture Virgin Galactic, as well as its spinoff companies The Spaceship Company and Virgin Orbit. The country has the option of investing an additional $480 million in the future, too. The money will go toward Virgin’s space tourism program and help accelerate the development of the company’s new launch vehicle to send small satellites into orbit.
The deal is part of a new partnership announced today between Saudi Arabia and Virgin, which both signed a Memorandum of Understanding — a formal but non-binding agreement — for the investment. The intent is to draw the funds from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which is used for domestic and international investments on behalf of the country’s government. The deal, however, is still pending and subject to regulatory approval by the US government.
For now, it’s unclear which companies will receive the bulk of the $1 billion funding, but two of Virgin’s space programs are in crucial stages of development right now. Virgin Galactic, which oversees Virgin’s human spaceflight program, is currently doing glide tests of its spaceplane the VSS Unity, which is designed to launch from an aircraft carrier and take people into space for a few brief minutes of weightlessness. Virgin Galactic hopes to begin powered tests of Unity later this year, and possibly start sending people into space as soon as the end of 2018. Additionally, the recently formed Virgin Orbit is developing a new launch vehicle, called LauncherOne, meant to also take off from the wing of an airplane and carry small satellites to orbit. The first tests of the rocket are supposed to take place in the first half of 2018.
The announcement also mentioned that the investment may help further the development of another big goal of Virgin: point-to-point travel. It’s the idea of rapidly sending passengers to distant locations on Earth, using sub-orbital rockets. The concept was recently touted by SpaceX CEO Elon Musk as a potential use for his future giant rocket the BFR. Upgraded versions of Virgin Galactic’s spaceplanes could also help to pull off such a vision.
Meanwhile, Virgin was vague about what Saudi Arabia would get in return for its investment. Ultimately the country will have a huge stake in Virgin now, and the company may potentially help develop a “space-centric entertainment industry” in Saudi Arabia in the future. The company didn’t elaborate on what that meant, but a blog post by Branson showed a rendering of what a space-centric entertainment center might look like.
“We feel strongly that space exploration is an incredibly powerful tool to educate, entertain, and inspire people of all ages and all nationalities,” Will Pomerantz, vice president for special projects at Virgin Orbit, wrote in an email to The Verge in regard to the entertainment center. “We’ll aim to release more details in the coming months.”