Aerospace

Orbex 3D printed rocket to be the first launched from UK’s new ‘Sutherland Space Hub’

British aerospace company Orbex has announced that its 3D printed rockets will be the first to launch from the UK’s new spaceport, which is currently under construction in Scotland. 

The first orbital spaceflight to launch from British soil has edged a step closer following the Scottish Highland Council’s decision to approve the construction of the UK Space Agency (UKSA’s) ‘Sutherland Space Hub.’ With the launch site set to become operational in early 2022, Orbex will be the first of a series of companies to fire payloads into space, in rockets powered by 3D printed engines.

“The Highland Council’s approval of the spaceport is a landmark in the history of spaceflight in Europe and will place the community around Tongue, Melness and Skerray, the Highlands Region, Scotland and the United Kingdom at the very heart of the European space launch industry,” said Chris Larmour, CEO of Orbex. “We look forward to becoming an integral part of the local community as we establish our own permanent team at the Space Hub.”

Orbex’s 3D printed rocket engines 

Based in the Scottish town of Forres, Orbex made a quiet start when it launched in 2015, and spent three years operating in stealth mode while it planned to launch a series of commercial CubeSats into Earth’s orbit. Then in July 2018, the company burst onto the scene, announcing that it had raised £30 million ($40 million) in private and public funding. 

The UKSA later confirmed that Orbex would be launching from its upcoming Sutherland Space Hub, as part of a sharing agreement with U.S. aerospace competitor Rocket Lab. Then, in order to propel its rockets into orbit, Orbex worked with German metal 3D printer manufacturer SLM Solutions to develop single piece 3D printed rocket engines. 

Also built with support from the European Commission Horizon 2020 fund and the UKSA, the Prime Rocket’s engines were dubbed “the world’s largest 3D printed rockets.” Fuelled by renewable biofuels such as liquid oxygen (LOx) and propane, a non-toxic and cheaper alternative to hydrogen, its engines are designed to be eco-friendly. The engine chamber itself was 3D printed by SLM using its SLM 800 large-format system, reportedly reducing its turnaround time by 90 percent, and its cost by 50 percent, compared to traditional CNC machining. 

Moreover, the overall Orbex vehicle is intended to be recoverable and reusable and operates without leaving any debris in the ocean or in orbit around the Earth. In order to enhance the rocket’s green credentials, Orbex began working with the European Space Agency (ESA) in January. The contract, awarded under the ESA’s Future Launchers Preparatory Program (FLPP), allowed Orbex to further develop REFLIGHT, a near zero-mass reusability system, which enables stage one boosters to be recovered and reused in multiple missions. 

Now that the Scottish authorities have given their blessing to the new launch site, Orbex can begin planning its launches in earnest ahead of its estimated launch window of early 2022. “We would like to congratulate Highlands and Islands Enterprise on their leadership of this project, and thank numerous local people for their active engagement and support throughout the meticulous planning process,” said Larmour, following the Council’s decision. 

Set to be operational in early 2022, the new Sutherland Space Hub will allow Orbex to launch the first British satellite since 1971. Image via Orbex.
Set to be operational in early 2022, the new Sutherland Space Hub will enable Orbex to launch the first British satellite into orbit since 1971. Image via Orbex.

The planned launch from ‘Space Hub Sutherland’

Having gained the Scottish Highland Council’s permission, the UK Space Agency’s new spaceport can finally move ahead, two years after the project was greenlit, receiving £17.9 million ($22.5 million) in UK government funding. Based near Melness, on the northern coast of Scotland, the satellite launch site will initially be utilized to launch a series of small payloads into space. Orbex confirmed last year that its first payloads would be satellites for UK-based Surrey Satellite Technology (SSTL) and Swiss company Astrocast

As the first to launch from the new Space Hub, Orbex could become the first to ever successfully fire a commercial rocket into orbit from British soil. While the UK’s ill-fated ‘Royal Aircraft Establishment’ did use a British rocket to launch the Prospero satellite into space in 1971, this was fired from Australia, thus paving the way for Orbex to make history. 

“The first orbital spaceflight from the United Kingdom has come a step closer following the Highland Council’s decision to give the go-ahead for the Space Hub Sutherland spaceport,” stated the company. “Orbex can confirm that the Orbex Prime will be the first vertical launch vehicle to fly into orbit from the Space Hub.”

Orbex has conducted a series of tests on its 3D printed rocket engines, to continue their development, and prepare for launch in 2022. Photo via Orbex.
Orbex has conducted a series of tests on its 3D printed rocket engines, to continue their development, and prepare for launch in 2022. Photo via Orbex.

Following the launch site’s approval, the company has not only signed six commercial launch contracts but has been busy developing its 3D printed rockets for a range of other projects. Despite the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, Orbex has worked “intensively” on design and development upgrades for its rockets. The aerospace company’s innovative coaxial fuel tank, for instance, is being subjected to ongoing cryogenic testing, and the company has also agreed to install a new testing facility at a former RAF base near its headquarters in Forres.

Additionally, Orbex’s rocket engines have been progressing through a program of increasingly demanding performance tests, and its avionics and guidance systems are also being ground tested. Recruitment is expected to accelerate too, with the company hiring several new engineers in recent weeks, and more anticipated to follow, having partnered with the UK Space Agency’s Space Placements in Industry (SPIN) program. The project offers young engineers the chance to gain hands-on experience in launch vehicle design and production via long-term internships. 

Finally, now the Highland Council has given its permission for construction to begin at the site, Orbex will be able to complete the detailed scoping of its own launch site installation and start hiring its launch preparation team. According to the company, the only remaining obstacles for the Space Hub, are a series of launch regulations that are set to be passed by the UK government imminently. 

“The go-ahead for the Space Hub Sutherland, combined with the steady progress of the Orbex Prime launch vehicle, are important steps towards the first truly orbital space flight from the UK,” concluded Larmour. “The last piece of the jigsaw puzzle is the regulatory framework that will govern launches, and we look forward to those regulations being laid before Parliament in the coming weeks.” 

Using SLM's 3D printing technology, Orbex was reportedly able to reduce its rocket engine's construction costs by 50 percent. Photo via Orbex.
Using SLM’s 3D printing technology, Orbex was reportedly able to reduce its rocket engine’s construction costs by 50 percent. Photo via Orbex.

Additive innovation and rocket engines 

A number of other private aerospace companies have also developed 3D printed rocket engines in recent years, as the additive aerospace industry becomes increasingly competitive. 

U.S. aerospace startup Rocket Crafters Inc. for instance, has successfully completed a series of tests on its Comet Series hybrid 3D printed rocket engine. The 49 laboratory tests were designed to be a large-scale proof of concept for the engines, ahead of a planned test flight later this year.

California-based aerospace company Rocket Lab’s Electron Rocket, on the other hand, has entered final testing ahead of its upcoming U.S. Space Force Mission. The rocket, powered by its 3D printed Rutherford engines, has passed initial system testing and been rolled out onto its launchpad for the first time ahead of the mission’s launch.

US-based rocket manufacturer Relativity Space meanwhile, has secured a new headquarters in the hub of the aerospace community, in Long Beach California. The company will seek to use the new facility to develop what it describes as “the world’s first fully 3D printed rocket.” 

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Featured image shows concept art of the Orbex Prime rocket being launched into orbit from the new Sutherland Space Hub. Image via Orbex.

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