First Rocket from UK Soil: the Orbex Prime 3D Printed Rocket

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In what could be considered a major step forward for the United Kingdom (UK)’s space program, Orbex announced it will be the first company to launch its rocket into orbit at the recently approved Space Hub in Scotland’s northern coast. Estimated to start active flying missions as early as 2022, the company’s vertical launch vehicle, Orbex Prime, will use the world’s largest 3D printed rocket engine. Uniquely manufactured in a single piece without joints, seams, or welds, the complex part is expected to withstand extreme temperature and pressure fluctuations while traveling to orbit.

On June 26, three years after the British space agency chose Scotland’s Melness Crofters Estate on the A’Mhoine peninsula to construct a new spaceport, a Highland Council committee approved plans to build the £17.9 million ($22.5 million) satellite launch site. Once operational, the spaceport, dubbed Space Hub Sutherland, will likely support small payload launches first from Orbex, and later on from Lockheed Martin and other companies.

No rocket has ever launched to orbit from UK soil before. The country’s only single orbital rocket launch happened back in 1971 and took off from an Australian launch site. This is why the up and coming spaceport in Scotland is critical to bringing orbit launches for the first time to continental Europe and the UK, as well as becoming one of the newest additions to the 22 active spaceports around the world.

“The Highland Council’s approval of the spaceport is a landmark in the history of spaceflight in Europe and will place the community around Tongue, Melness and Skerray, the Highlands Region, Scotland and the United Kingdom at the very heart of the European space launch industry,” said Chris Larmour, CEO of Orbex. “We would like to congratulate Highlands and Islands Enterprise on their leadership of this project and thank numerous local people for their active engagement and support throughout the meticulous planning process. We look forward to becoming an integral part of the local community as we establish our own permanent team at the Space Hub.”

Rendering of the future Space Hub Sutherland (Image courtesy of NORR Architects/HIE)

The decision of the Highland Council will allow Orbex to complete the detailed scoping of its launch site installation and launch preparation team, which will create full-time, permanent jobs at the space hub. Additionally, an economic impact assessment commissioned by the agency concluded that developing the new site could support around 250 high-quality jobs in the Highlands and Islands, including manufacturing, supply chain, and training opportunities, with recruitment expected to start while the spaceport construction is underway.

Several new starters joined the Orbex team in recent weeks, with more expected to follow over the summer period, especially as hiring will most likely accelerate now that Orbex’s preferred option of an easily accessible launch site in Scotland has been approved. Orbex has also partnered with the UK Space Agency (UKSA)’s Space Placements in Industry (SPIN) scheme, to offer long-term internships that provide young engineers hands-on experience of launch vehicle design and production.

Orbex has already established a rocket design and manufacturing facility in Forres in the Scottish Highlands, where it expects to assemble the innovative rocket before transporting it to the Sutherland spaceport for launch. Designed to deliver small satellites into Earth’s orbit, the two-stage rocket was completely re-thought and re-engineered by Orbex aerospace experts with professional experience in long-standing organizations like NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and Ariane, as well as other commercial spaceflight companies. Orbex claimed in the past that its novel architecture makes Prime launchers up to 30% lighter and 20% more efficient than any other vehicle in the small launcher category, packing more power per cubic liter than many of its heavy counterparts.

Orbex’s 3D printed rocket engine (Image courtesy of Orbex)

Conceived and developed as an environmentally sustainable launch system, Orbex Prime will use renewable biofuels to deliver an industry-leading ultra-low carbon dioxide footprint, which will probably come as great news to the communities of the Scottish Highlands. Even though the decision to approve the planning application was unanimous, there was quite a lot of opposition to the Sutherland launch site, with over 400 objections from people living in the area, many focusing on the environmental risk to the peatland that will serve as a building base for the launch pad. To that end, even the British government had to emit a statement to ensure that all measures were being taken to minimize the environmental impact of spaceflight activities and going as far as stipulating several conditions on the space hub, including limiting launches to 12 per year.

As part of Orbex’s commitment to the wellbeing of the planet and Scottish residents, its Prime vehicle is intended to be recoverable and re-usable, normally leaving no debris in the ocean or orbit around the Earth. Furthermore, in January, the ESA awarded Orbex a contract under its Future Launchers Preparatory Program, (FLPP) covering the further development of REFLIGHT, a near zero-mass reusability system which will allow stage one boosters to be recovered and reused in multiple missions, further reducing the employment of raw materials.

“The go-ahead for the Space Hub Sutherland, combined with the steady progress of the Orbex Prime launch vehicle, are important steps towards the first truly orbital space flight from the UK. The last piece of the jigsaw puzzle is the regulatory framework that will govern launches, and we look forward to those regulations being laid before Parliament in the coming weeks,” explained Larmour.

Satellites launched from the Highland site will be used for Earth observation towards scientific, environmental, and commercial ends, including gathering data to monitor and address the effects of climate change around the world; as well as for satellite constellations for telecommunications.

Orbex also confirmed that it had already signed six launch contracts. In the past, the company revealed the identity of three customers that would be among the first to launch their satellites from the Sutherland spaceport aboard the Orbex Prime, those were UK’s leading manufacturer of small satellite Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL); Swiss-based Astrocast, hoping to launch multiple of its nanosatellites for the development of a planet-wide Internet of Things (IoT) network, and Spanish aerospace and defense company Elecnor Deimos, which confirmed Orbex would launch up to twenty of its satellites.

The Orbex Prime launcher is powered by six 3D printed engines on the first stage. Orbex engineers have been running main stage propulsion tests since late 2016 (Image courtesy of Orbex)

The go-ahead for Space Hub Sutherland coincides with a period of intensive work at Orbex, as design and development work has continued throughout the pandemic. The company stated that its innovative coaxial fuel tank is being subjected to ongoing cryogenic testing and that it recently signed a lease to install a new testing facility on the former Royal Air Force (RAF) base at Kinloss, close to the company’s headquarters in Forres. Meanwhile, Orbex’s rocket engines have been progressing through a program of increasingly demanding performance tests while avionics and guidance systems are also being ground tested.

Funded by two of Europe’s largest venture capital funds, Heartcore Capital and the High-Tech Gründerfonds, as well as strategic investor Elecnor Deimos Space, the UKSA, the ESA, and the European Commission Horizon 2020 program, Orbex first came into the public eye in July of 2018, after the UKSA announced that the company had been chosen to launch from the proposed spaceport in Sutherland as part of the main consortium. At that time, the company announced that it had already won £30 million ($40 million) in private and public backing for the project, making it Europe’s best-funded private launch company, straight out of stealth mode.

The heart of the launch operation is the Orbex Mission Control Centre, which allows flight controllers access to numerous data streams and communications with the launch vehicle during flight (Image courtesy of Orbex)

The UK government’s ambitious plan to capture 10% of the global space economy by 2030 translates into a growing market for space-based services, applications, and manufacturing, as well as infrastructure to support launching activity. Up until now, the Space Hub Sutherland is the only planned future vertical vehicle launch site, but it’s not the only anticipated spaceport in the UK. There are currently four more sites that can adapt existing infrastructure to develop horizontal spaceport runways, ideal for space tourism plans in the coming decades. Newquay in Cornwall, Campbeltown and Glasgow Prestwick in Scotland and Snowdonia in Wales could all be part of the future of Britain’s space adventures. Moreover, to deliver a complete supply chain capacity ready to meet space demands, UK leadership expects a surge among space start-ups and small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), with companies like Orbex falling right under that category. At this rate, the next decade might see a boom in space technologies, vehicles, and satellite constellations, as both public and private British enterprises, continue their plans to move ahead of the pack and attempt to lead Europe’s space capabilities.

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