Orbex rocket

‘World’s most environmentally friendly’ rocket unveiled

Image credit: Orbex

UK becomes the first European nation to unveil an innovative, lightweight re-usable micro-launcher, developed by spaceflight company Orbex.

Scotland has become the home of the first full-scale micro-launcher rocket developed in Europe.

Lifting off from Space Hub Sutherland, in the Highlands, the Prime orbital space rocket has been unveiled, a major step forward for the British space industry. Orbex, the company behind the rocket, is preparing the first-ever vertical rocket launch to orbit from UK soil.

“We are on the cusp of a historic moment, with Orbex playing a leading role in generating a brand new launch capability in the UK,” said Ian Annett, deputy CEO of the UK Space Agency.

Prime is a 19m-long, two-stage rocket powered by seven engines. The six rocket engines on the first stage of the rocket will propel the vehicle through the atmosphere to an altitude of around 80km. The single engine on the second stage of the rocket will complete the journey to low-Earth orbit (LEO), allowing the release of its payload of small, commercial satellites into Earth's orbit.

The rocket is significant because of its reliance on biofuels, which will allow the company to ensure that the rocket only generates 4 per cent of the carbon emissions created by rockets that rely on fossil fuels. Prime is also a re-usable rocket, designed to leave zero debris on Earth and in orbit.

“I am deeply impressed with the speed at which the Orbex Prime rocket was developed,” said Josef Aschbacher, director general, European Space Agency (ESA). “It is the first full orbital micro-launcher in Europe. But I am equally impressed by the low-carbon footprint technology applied.”

Closeup of Orbex rocket

Image credit: Orbex

Orbex Prime will launch from Space Hub Sutherland, a new spaceport being constructed on the north coast of Scotland. Space Hub Sutherland was the first vertical spaceport to receive planning permission in the UK and later in 2022 will be the first European spaceport brought into operation. It is also the first and only spaceport worldwide that has committed to being carbon-neutral, both in its construction and operation.

Now that the integration of the Orbex rocket on a launchpad has been completed, the company has entered a testing phase, allowing “dress rehearsals” of rocket launches and the development of launch procedures. Orbex recently revealed the first test launch platform in Kinloss, a few miles from the company’s headquarters at Forres, Moray.

The market for small satellites is increasing rapidly, as a wide range of new small satellite constellations are being developed and deployed by companies such as Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Micro-launchers such as Orbex Prime give satellite manufacturers a dedicated launch service, in contrast to larger ‘rideshare’ launchers, where small satellites frequently face significant delays.

“This is a hugely exciting time for the UK space and satellite sector as we count down to the first satellite launches from UK spaceports,” said UK Science Minister George Freeman.

In order to ensure that the Prime rocket maintained the performance expected of modern rockets with a significantly lower environmental impact, Orbex had to design innovative 3D-printed rocket engines, lightweight fuel tanks, and a novel, low-mass reusability technology.

“Orbex Prime is a remarkable feat of engineering from a British rocket company,” Freeman added. 

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