UK launch services provider Orbex has unveiled a completed engineering prototype of the second stage for its Prime rocket at the opening of its new headquarters and rocket design facility in Forres in the Scottish Highlands. Prime is a small satellite launcher that is set to be the first UK rocket to launch UK satellites from a UK launch site. Orbex also announced two customers who have signed up for Prime launches.
Regardless of the historic nature of Prime’s goal to mark the UK’s first end-to-end domestic launch capability, it is also a super-advanced vehicle that sports a specially-formulated lightweight carbon fiber and aluminum composite – and includes the world’s largest 3-D printed rocket engine.
The vehicle has been designed by Orbex aerospace engineers with a wealth of professional experience from organizations including NASA, ESA and Arianespace.
“Thanks to its novel architecture, Prime launchers are up to 30 percent lighter and 20 percent more efficient than any other vehicle in the small launcher category, packing more power per cubic liter than many heavy launchers,” noted Orbex after revealing photos of the second stage at its new facility in Scotland.
The 3-D printed rocket engine was uniquely manufactured in a single piece without joins in partnership with additive manufacturer SLM Solution.
“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,” the company added.
Prime is the first commercial rocket engine designed to work with biopropane, a clean-burning, renewable fuel source that cuts carbon emissions by 90 percent compared to fossil hydrocarbon fuels, supplied by Orbex’s new exclusive BioLPG fuel partner Calor.
Prime will launch from the UK’s first spaceport in Sutherland which is located in the Scottish Highlands. It was already known the UK Space Agency had announced that Orbex had been chosen to launch from the proposed spaceport as part of the main consortium.
“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” Graham Turnock, Chief Executive, UK Space Agency, noted. “The new facility and future spaceport operations will help unlock vast economic and societal benefits not just in Scotland but right across the UK.”
The first launch is set to take place in 2021, with Orbex Prime’s maiden flight carrying an experimental payload from UK-based Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL). Orbex has also confirmed that it will launch an upcoming satellite in SSTL’s line of demonstrators by 2023.
“We are extremely excited about the development of a sovereign UK satellite launch capability,” commented Sarah Parker, Managing Director of SSTL. “This is something SSTL has been advocating for many years, and it will benefit the entire UK space industry. We have been impressed with the rapid progress Orbex has made in a short time, and we look forward to working with them towards the first launch in 2021 and beyond.”
Orbex also announced that Swiss-based Astrocast SA, has selected Orbex 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.
“What Astrocast is planning is nothing short of revolutionary, and we’re excited to be a part of it,” said Chris Larmour, CEO of Orbex. “It is not just a great idea. They are already executing well, having designed and manufactured their first satellite, which is already operational in the Earth’s orbit. We are encouraged to see this satellite innovation here in Europe, and we look forward to playing our part in the deployment of their satellite constellation.”
Future customers will be looking to take advantage of Prime’s ability to launch satellites to altitudes up to 1,250 km (776 miles), inserting them into sun-synchronous or polar orbits.
“The plans for a spaceport in Sutherland have already attracted significant investment, and Orbex’s rocket design facility will bring more than 100 new jobs to the Scottish Highlands region – this is our modern Industrial Strategy in action,” said Business Secretary Greg Clark.
“The space sector is a great British success story and we are working closely with industry to ensure we thrive in the commercial space age.”