Orbex breaks ground on Sutherland Spaceport as UK prepares to enter domestic launch market

by Chris Bergin

United Kingdom (UK) based spaceflight company Orbex has begun construction at the Sutherland Spaceport in Scotland. Set to host launches of Orbex’s Prime rocket, Sutherland is the UK mainland’s first vertical launch site.

With another vertical-launch site at SaxaVord Spaceport in the Shetlands, and Spaceport Cornwall’s horizontal-launch options, the UK is finally ramping up its domestic spaceflight ambitions after decades in the wilderness.

Formerly known as Space Hub Sutherland, the Scottish site will boast the first vertical-launch spaceport to be built on the UK mainland.

“This marks a major step forward for Sutherland Spaceport and demonstrates the UK’s growing launch capability and the thriving space sector in Scotland,” noted the UK Space Agency.

“The UK Space Agency has invested £8.5 million in Scottish-based launch technologies through the European Space Agency’s Boost! program, as well as £2.5 million towards the spaceport and £5.5 million for the development of Orbex’s Prime rocket, which has catalyzed further investment from private and public partners.”

The spaceport will be the home spaceport of Forres-based rocket and launch services company, Orbex, which will use the site to launch up to 12 orbital rockets per year for the deployment of satellites into orbit.

Artist’s depiction of Orbex’s Prime rocket lifting off from the Sutherland site. (Credit: Orbex)

Orbex was set to debut its Prime rocket in 2021 before development issues relating to the launch site’s approval process delayed the launch. Orbex and Prime have already garnered several contracts, with its maiden launch set to carry an experimental payload from UK-based Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL), as well as an upcoming satellite in SSTL’s line of demonstration spacecraft.

In addition to the initial launch contracts, Orbex stated that Swiss-based Astrocast SA selected Orbex to launch multiple nanosatellites for the development of a planet-wide Internet of Things (IoT) satellite network.

Prime is the first commercial rocket designed to work with renewable biofuel. Futuria Liquid Gas, a clean-burning, renewable fuel source that cuts carbon emissions by 90 percent when compared to fossil hydrocarbon fuels, is supplied by Orbex’s BioLPG fuel partner Calor UK.

Prime on the Sutherland pad. (Credit: Orbex)

Prime is a 19-meter-long, two-stage rocket designed to transport small satellites, specifically those weighing up to 180 kg, into low Earth orbit (LEO). What’s more, Prime sports a specially-formulated lightweight carbon fiber and aluminum composite, including the world’s largest 3-D printed rocket engine.

Sporting seven rocket engines on the first stage, Prime will propel the vehicle through the atmosphere to an altitude of around 80km. A single engine on the rocket’s second stage will complete Prime’s journey to LEO, allowing for the release of its payload of small commercial satellites into Earth’s orbit.

Orbex’s Prime rocket. (Credit: Orbex)

Orbex recently signed a 50-year sublease with HIE (Highlands and Islands Enterprise), enabling Orbex to direct the construction and assume full operational management of a new facility on the community-owned Melness Crofters Estate.

“The start of construction at Sutherland Spaceport is an important milestone for the local community and the UK space sector. The prospect of launch is exciting in itself, but for HIE as a development agency, an even greater prize is the economic benefits that this development will bring to our region,” noted David Oxley, HEI Director of Strategic Projects.

“This has been a truly collaborative process, and we are delighted to be working with Orbex to make Sutherland Spaceport a reality.”

The site is being built by Jacobs, contracted for the construction of the site as well as spaceport operations support, operations consultancy, and engineering services. Jacobs is well-established in the industry, working with numerous NASA facilities in the United States, including Kennedy Space Center.

The Sutherland launch site. (Credit: HIE)

“As an investor in Orbex, Jacobs is deeply committed to supporting this key project which is of immense importance to the UK’s fast-growing space sector,” added Andy White, Vice President.

“We are looking forward to fulfilling our role as prime constructor for the spaceport, including design, procurement, and management of the local supply chain, as well as providing operations support and engineering services.”

In preparation for its first launch, Orbex is performing a wide variety of integration and launch procedure tests, including rollout, strongback deployment, and fuelling procedures.

The first launch from UK soil was a takeoff, with Virgin Orbit’s Cosmic Girl carrier plane carrying the LauncherOne rocket out over the sea before LauncherOne attempted an air launch that ultimately failed during second stage flight.

Nonetheless, Virgin Orbit’s failed launch attempt gained a large amount of media attention and showed that the UK public has a large appetite for domestic space flight. This will only increase with the addition of rockets like Orbex’s Prime.

Two Scottish sites will lead the way, with Sutherland joined by SaxaVord, formerly known as Shetland Space Centre, which has already started construction on a vertical launch facility on Unst, one of the Shetland Islands off the northern coast of mainland Scotland.

Artist’s depiction of a launch from Unst. (Credit: SaxaVord Spaceport)

“It is an incredibly exciting time for the space sector, with the first orbital launch from UK soil expected to take place in Scotland later this year,” added Richard Lochhead, Minister for Small Business, Innovation & Trade for the Scottish government.

“Despite our relatively small country, Scotland plays a leading role in the space sector, and with the global market projected to grow to £490 billion by 2030, we are well placed to become Europe’s leading space nation by 2030.”

(Lead image: Prime on the launch pad at the Sutherland site. Credit: Orbex)


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