Image Courtesy: ORBEX
UK-based Orbex could carve out a significant spot for itself in the British space industry with its small commercial rocket.
The launch vehicle, Prime, has been in development for several years but recently got a step closer to commercial rollout.
Let us look at the latest developments, the launcher itself, and its potential applications and impacts on the UK space sector.
At the end of 2021, Orbex announced it was beginning construction on a test launch facility near its headquarters in Forres, Scotland.
Despite being titled The Launch Platform (or Orbex LP1), it will not see any actual launches.
Instead, it will allow the team to run rehearsals of real launches, which will take place at Sutherland Spaceport.
Orbex commissioned Motive Offshore Group to build the platform, although its experience is in marine and lifting equipment.
That said, very few British companies have experience building launch platforms, at least for now.
The launch platform will be ready in early 2022, a few months before construction begins on Sutherland Spaceport.
Having a test site will allow Orbex to be completely ready for its first real launch without needing to test at Sutherland.
Hopefully, this will mean a smooth rollout when that time comes.
The Orbex Prime is a micro-launcher designed to deliver payloads (satellites) of up to 150 kilograms into low-Earth orbit.
While this itself is not a revolutionary idea, Orbex has rethought some of the most fundamental aspects of rocket design.
For example, the engine is 3D printed, which reduces weight and removes joins. As such, it will be less prone to malfunction than traditional engine designs.
The rocket uses other architectural features to reduce its mass by around 30 per cent, increasing efficiency by 20 per cent.
It also uses low-carbon fuel and has built-in reusability features, putting it in line with the growing trend of low-impact rockets.
Again, it is not the only launch vehicle to do this, but it currently sits as the leading private small satellite launch service in Europe.
The most obvious use for Prime is delivering small satellites into LEO. As we have discussed previously, this promises to be a significant market in the UK and worldwide.
The trickle-down effects of space technology mean the industry is becoming more privatised, and Orbex is positioned to leverage this shift.
It will primarily deliver satellites into polar orbit constellations, due in part to the location of Sutherland Spaceport.
Of course, this will not be its only mission, but launching payloads to build the constellation will form a large part of its early work.
However, its other purpose is arguably to prove space launches can be clean.
Orbex is involved in the ESA’s Clean Space Initiative, focusing on reducing the carbon footprint and lifecycle of launch vehicles.
Considering the UK already has a significant investment in building satellites, it is no surprise that the space industry would shift towards launching them, too.
Orbex is positioned to take advantage of this industry development and will hopefully create an ethical (and environmental) framework for the sector’s future.