Orbex Prime will be the first vehicle to launch from Sutherland Spaceport in 2022. Orbex, a UK-based space launch company, agreed to launch from the site in 2020. Since then, it has signed six contracts already, a promising sign for the UK’s still-fresh launch industry.
Orbex stands out from the competition thanks to its innovative launcher design. Orbex Prime uses 3D-printed engines and a body made from carbon fibre and graphene composites. This helps to reduce its mass and, in turn, improve launch efficiency. It also uses bio-propane fuel, which reduces carbon emissions by 90 per cent compared to traditional rocket fuels.
The partnership between Sutherland Spaceport and Orbex will focus on the small-sat market, launching tiny satellites (often in ride-sharing launches) into Low Earth Orbit. The UK already has a firm place in the small-sat market and hopes to improve its share by opening Sutherland Spaceport.
Sutherland Spaceport is situated on the A’Mhoine peninsula in Sutherland, in northern mainland Scotland. During the earliest consultation phases, the UK Space Agency also considered Unst in Shetland and North Uist in the Western Isles. The main benefit of the A’Mhoine peninsula is that it is on the mainland, and so is marginally more accessible.
That said, its remoteness is a considerable benefit from a launch site perspective. The closest populated settlement is Talmine, which is roughly 17 kilometres away by road.
But, the main advantage of Sutherland as a launch site is its geographic location. The spaceport has a clear northern coastline, meaning it can launch vehicles due north into polar and Sun-synchronous orbits with little difficulty.
Unlike Prestwick Spaceport, Sutherland will be a vertical launch site. This is the traditional space launch setup; while it needs less room on the ground, it benefits from being more remote due to the noise and disruption the launch causes.
Sutherland Spaceport is currently due to only have one launch pad, and will exclusively launch Orbex Prime vehicles. Lockheed Martin was in talks to also launch from the site, but pulled out in 2020, perhaps due to the lack of launch pads, as this affects flexibility.
The first launch is planned for late 2022, although things will truly take off in 2023. Although Orbex announced six contracts, it has not yet released details on what it will launch (and for whom).
The coming five to ten years promise to be an exciting time for the British space industry. Never before have we had the ability to launch from home soil, so it will be fascinating to see whether this will impact our collaborations in international space projects of this nature.
Considering the UK’s production of small-sats, it makes perfect sense to have launch sites in the country. Hopefully, it will grow into the industry we all want the country to have.