A first look inside the Orbex rocket factory in Scotland
The UK bases startup plans to create the next generation of the renewably-fuelled orbital launch vehicles that will take payloads into space. The company also unveiled its new Mission Control Centre that will be used to monitor rocket launches, as well as engine tests from its two propulsion test sites.
The company has installed several new production systems, including one of the largest carbon fibre winding machines in Europe. This 18-metre long machine automates the rapid weaving of intricate mixes of materials to build the main rocket structures. Orbex has worked for several years to investigate and perfect the carbon fibre blend used in the patented construction of its Prime rocket. Thanks to its choice of design and materials, Orbex Prime will be 30 per cent lighter than similar-sized rockets, allowing acceleration from 0 to 1,330 km/h in just 60 seconds.
To make large rocket structures and components ready for spaceflight, Orbex uses a full-scale ‘autoclave’ which uses high temperatures and up to seven times atmospheric pressure to help carbon fibre composites bond solidly. In just a few hours, these machines can process large rocket parts, such as main stage fuel tanks, to create a strong and reliable structure that is ready for the extremes of space. Some of these carbon fibre structures can tolerate massive pressures – in some cases up to 500 times atmospheric pressure.
Earlier this year, Orbex revealed how it was using 3-D printing to create what is currently the world’s largest single-piece 3-D printed rocket engines. 3-D printing allows the integration of dozens of tiny design details and features without requiring additional processing time. Orbex is able to 3-D print a complete rocket engine in just five days.
We’re creating rockets in a way that hasn’t been done before. The whole point of NewSpace – private enterprise getting involved in spaceflight – is to provide faster, better and cheaper access to space. Burning through hundreds of millions of dollars on robotic assembly lines or hundreds of staff to produce heavy, metal rockets is an antiquated approach. Building a modern space business means updating the manufacturing ethos to be faster, more agile and more flexible. That’s what we’re doing here at Orbex. Chris Larmour, Orbex CEO
The new Mission Control Centre at its Forres site allows flight controllers to access numerous data streams from the launch vehicle during lift-off and flight, allowing complete remote command and control. Today, the Mission Control Centre is used to monitor engine tests and simulate flight operations. Orbex has two rocket engine test sites, one in Denmark and one at a secure location in the United Kingdom.
Prime is expected to be the first rocket to take off from the proposed spaceport in Sutherland. On August 1, 2019, Orbex’s partner, Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) confirmed that it had signed a 75-year lease option with landowners, the Melness Crofters Estate, to build and operate a spaceport on its land. The designs for the spaceport, including the eco-friendly Launch Operations Control Centre have been released as part of public consultation ahead of a formal planning request, expected before the end of 2019.
While some launch solutions for small satellites require up to 200,000 kilos of fossil fuels, Prime needs just 4,000 kilos of fuel per launch, making it around fifty times more fuel-efficient. Uniquely for a commercial rocket, Prime will use bio-propane, a clean-burning and completely renewable fuel that also reduces carbon emissions by 90 per cent over standard kerosene-based rocket fuels. It also avoids using hazardous substances such as hydrazine or highly concentrated hydrogen peroxide. Prime rockets were designed from the beginning to leave no orbital debris and to be re-usable, using an innovative low mass concept to recover the main stage.
Orbex has secured multiple commercial agreements to take small satellites into orbit from Scotland. These include agreements with SSTL, the world’s leading manufacturer of small satellites and Astrocast, which is building a planet-wide Internet of Things network. In July 2019, the company announced that it had signed commercial agreements with In-Space Missions, which is developing ‘In-Orbit Demonstrator’ satellites and Innovative Space Logistics which would procure orbital space launches from Orbex for a number of smallsat missions. Strategic investor, Elecnor-Deimos, has also selected Orbex for up to 20 future launches.