Scottish space firm Orbex has unveiled an engineering prototype of a rocket that’s at the heart of plans to develop a UK satellite launch capability.
The company, which is involved in plans to develop the UK’s first spaceport in Sutherland, Scotland unveiled the rocket at the opening of its new headquarters and rocket design facility in Forres in the Scottish Highlands.
Designed to deliver small satellites into Earth’s orbit, Orbex Prime is a two-stage rocket that’s claimed to be up to 30% lighter and 20% more efficient than any other vehicle in the small launcher category. It is also the first commercial rocket engine designed to work with bio-propane, a clean-burning, renewable fuel source that cuts carbon emissions by 90% compared to fossil hydrocarbon fuels.
The completed engineering prototype of the Stage 2 rocket (the stage that will transit into orbital flight after launch) is made from a specially-formulated lightweight carbon fibre and aluminium composite and includes the world’s largest 3D printed rocket engine. This was manufactured in a single piece without joins in partnership with additive manufacturer SLM Solutions. The company claims that given the extreme temperature and pressure fluctuations involved in space flight, this gives the engine an advantage over other rocket engines, which can suffer from weaknesses associated with joining and welding.
Prime’s maiden flight – planned for 2021 – will see it carry an experimental payload from UK-based Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL), a leading manufacturer of small satellites. This launch will represent an important first for the UK commercial space industry, demonstrating the UK’s end-to-end launch capability with a UK rocket launching a UK satellite from a UK spaceport.
Orbex has also announced that Swiss-based Astrocast SA, has selected the firm to launch multiple nanosatellites for the development of a planet-wide Internet of Things (IoT) network. Astrocast’s satellite-based IoT network will eventually include 64 nanosatellites, spread across eight strata above the Earth to deliver IoT connectivity across the planet, including regions currently considered remote or inaccessible.
Graham Turnock, chief executive of the UK Space Agency said: “Orbex’s new rocket design facility brings Britain one step closer to having its own domestic commercial launch capability and firmly positions the UK as Europe’s frontrunner for those looking to Earth’s orbit and beyond for new opportunities. The new facility and future spaceport operations will help unlock vast economic and societal benefits not just in Scotland but right across the UK.”
Commenting on the latest raft of announcements Orbex CEO Chris Larmour said: “Orbex has been on an incredible journey, largely behind-the scenes…that is changing today, as we publicly reveal the company’s technical and commercial momentum. Not only do we have a full engineering prototype of the complete Stage 2 of the Prime rocket, but also a growing roster of customers hoping to be among the first to launch satellites from Scotland.”