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Orbex reveals full-scale microlauncher rocket ahead of test launches

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The Orbex Prime was showcased in a series of dramatic images, lit up by multicoloured lights on top of the 'dress rehearsal' launch pad (Credit: Orbex)
The Orbex Prime was showcased in a series of dramatic images, lit up by multicoloured lights on top of the 'dress rehearsal' launch pad (Credit: Orbex)

Scottish rocket firm Orbex has revealed the first full-scale prototype of its Prime orbital rocket.

Designed to launch very small satellites into orbit, the Prime was unveiled on a ‘dress rehearsal’ launch pad in Kinloss, a few miles from the company’s headquarters in Forres, Moray.

The first European ‘micro-launcher’ to reach this stage of technical readiness, the Prime could soon be launching from British soil. The 19m two-stage rocket is powered by seven 3D-printed engines being designed and manufactured in the UK and Denmark.

“This is a major milestone for Orbex and highlights just how far along our development path we now are,” said CEO Chris Larmour. “From the outside, it might look like an ordinary rocket, but on the inside, Prime is unlike anything else. To deliver the performance and environmental sustainability we wanted from a 21st century rocket, we had to innovate in a wide number of areas – low-carbon fuels, fully 3D-printed rocket engines, very lightweight fuel tanks, and a novel, low-mass reusability technology.”

The six engines on the first stage of the rocket will propel the vehicle through the atmosphere to an altitude of about 80km. The single engine on the second stage of the rocket will complete the journey to low Earth orbit, allowing the release of small, commercial satellites into orbit.

Prime is powered by a renewable biofuel known as bio-propane, supplied by Calor UK. The fuel allows the rocket to reduce carbon emissions significantly compared to other similarly sized rockets being developed elsewhere around the world, Orbex said.

A study by the University of Exeter showed that a single launch of Prime will produce 96% lower carbon emissions than comparable space launch systems using fossil fuels. Prime is also designed to be re-usable, and to leave no debris on Earth or in orbit.

“I am deeply impressed with the speed at which the Orbex Prime rocket was developed,” said Josef Aschbacher, director general of the European Space Agency. “But I am equally impressed by the low-carbon footprint technology applied. My sincere congratulations to the whole Orbex team for this impressive achievement.”

With the first full integration of the rocket onto a launch pad now complete, the company will enter a period of integrated testing, allowing dress rehearsals of rocket launches and the development and optimisation of launch procedures.

The rocket will eventually 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, with operation planned to start later this year. It is also the first and only spaceport worldwide that has committed to being carbon-neutral, both in construction and operation.

“We are on the cusp of an historic moment, with Orbex playing a leading role in generating a brand-new launch capability in the UK, while creating opportunities for people and businesses across the country,” said Ian Annett, deputy CEO of the UK Space Agency.

Science minister George Freeman said: “Orbex Prime is a remarkable feat of engineering from a British rocket company, pioneering more sustainable and innovative fuels that cut carbon emissions.”

Micro-launchers such as Orbex Prime give satellite manufacturers a dedicated launch service, in contrast to larger, ‘rideshare’ launchers, where small satellites are often a secondary payload.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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