Rocket-making start-up Orbex unveils 3D-printed engine at its new Scottish facility
Image credit: Tereza Pultarova
Orbex, the UK-headquartered rocket manufacturing start-up, has officially opened its rocket factory in Forres, near Inverness, Scotland, aiming to produce one small satellite launcher per month to cater to the needs of the growing European small satellite market.
At the event, Orbex unveiled the engineering prototype of the second stage of its Prime launcher – an innovative vehicle designed to be 20 per cent more efficient and 30 per cent lighter than other similar micro rockets currently in development.
Orbex started in 2015 as a hobby project that no one was taking seriously, according to its CEO Chris Larmour, but has since emerged as a frontrunner among UK-based rocketeers after it was announced in summer 2018 that it had secured £30 million of public and private funding, including backing from the UK Space Agency.
The company - which has also been backed by Europe’s largest venture capital funds Sunstone Technology Ventures and the High-Tech Gründerfonds, the European Space Agency (ESA), the European Commission and Elecnor Deimos Space - hopes to carry out its first test flight in late 2021 and move to commercial operations soon after. The plan is for Orbex to be launching from the Sutherland spaceport, just 86 miles (140km) north of Forres, which is currently being developed by the Highlands and Islands Enterprise.
“We also have production facilities in Copenhagen where we build the propulsion technology,” Larmour told E&T. “Here in Forres we will be building the carbon fibre structures for our vehicle and the avionics. We will integrate it here and take it to the launch site with a single truck.”
Speaking at the packed opening event, Larmour said the company expects to create 150 highly skilled engineering jobs in Forres and take advantage of the local talent pool centred around the Inverness and Lossiemouth air bases.
Larmour believes that European customers will be interested in the opportunity to be launching from Scotland rather than having to ship their spacecraft to India or Kazakhstan. The company is also looking at the possibility to operate from the Azores or Norway if the Sutherland spaceport doesn’t work out.
The Prime launch vehicle, which still has to undergo extensive testing before its maiden flight, will be able to carry between 150 and 200kg of payload up to an altitude of 1,250km. The vehicle features a 3D-printed engine, which has been developed by German advanced additive manufacturing specialist SLM Solutions. Larmour described it as the world’s largest 3D-printed rocket engine made as a single unit.
The rocket’s first stage will be largely reusable, he said, which will help Orbex to keep the cost down. While he refused to elaborate on how much Orbex’s customers will pay, he said the company’s offering will be “very competitive”.
“Certainly the engine pack of the stage one - which is a huge portion of the cost of the vehicle - we hope to make this reusable,” he said.
“It’s going to land in the sea, but I am not going to say how [as] that is currently patent pending.”
Jonas Bjarnø, Orbex’s chief technology officer, said the choice of propellant is the main strength of Orbex’s technology, allowing the company to pack more power into a relatively lightweight launcher.
“The propellant that we have opted to use - bio-propane or bio LPG - gives us some really unique options,” said Bjarnø, who has previously worked on hardware for many high-profile international missions, including Nasa’s Jupiter-exploring spacecraft Juno.
“Bio-propane stays liquid in the same way that liquid oxygen does and has the ability to densify when you cool it from the ambient temperature to the same temperature of liquid oxygen,” he explained.
The Prime launcher uses liquid oxygen as an oxidiser, Bjarnø said. When bio-propane is cooled to the temperature of the liquid oxygen its density increases by 30 per cent, which allows the vehicle to carry more propellant within a certain volume.
“The combination really drives the ability to have both the very green profile and a vehicle with a very low environmental impact, even over the entire chain of producing and disposing,” said Bjarnø. “At the same time, we are getting a performance level that is better than competitors for the same vehicle size.”
Orbex said Prime will generate 90 per cent less CO2 emissions compared to traditional hydrocarbon fuel-fired rockets.
Orbex also used the event to announce that Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL) will develop an experimental payload to be launched on the maiden flight. That company has also signed another contract with Orbex for a later launch.
Orbex also said that Swiss-based start-up Astrocast, which is developing a constellation of 64 CubeSats for affordable data communication, has signed a contract to launch 10 nanosatellites with Orbex by 2023. Key investor Elecnor Deimos Space previously purchased 24 launches with Orbex’s Prime.
Larmour said Orbex plans to remain committed to Scotland despite the uncertainty around Brexit and will gradually work its way up to launching one rocket every month.
“Brexit doesn’t change the fact that Scotland is an excellent location to launch from,” he said. “We are looking at what Brexit might mean from the business point of view, but we don’t plan to leave Britain and go to Luxembourg, for example. Hopefully, it will be resolved in an elegant way and not be a huge problem.”
Speaking at the Forres event, UK Space Agency’s CEO Graham Turnock said the 2021 Orbex maiden launch will demonstrate the end-to-end space flight capabilities the UK aims to offer – notably a UK-made satellite launched on a UK-made rocket from a UK spaceport.
“Back in 2010 when the UK Space Agency was established, I don’t think anybody would have anticipated that we will be here opening Scotland’s first commercial launch vehicle development facility less than nine years later,” Turnock said. “This landmark moment brings Britain one step closer to its own domestic launch capability. We are sending a clear signal to the rest of the world that our preparations for launch are advancing at pace.”
Last week, the UK Space Agency released its UK space industry ‘size and health’ report, which found that since 2016 the income of the UK’s space industry increased from £13.7 billion to £14.8 billion. The sector now employs 41,900 compared to 38,522 in 2016, with its exports worth £5.5 billion - half a billion more compared with two years earlier.
Turnock said the UK Space Agency is working with the industry to unlock further opportunities including sub-orbital spaceflight and hopes to tap into the potential of the upcoming satellite mega-constellations.
He said that in spite of the upcoming Brexit, the UK will remain committed to the European cooperation in space and remain one of the leading members of the European Space Agency.