Orbex, a British company, has unveiled a prototype of a green rocket for launching small satellites into orbit. A 1:1 scale prototype of the reusable Prime rocket awaits testing at the new Space Hub Sutherland in northern Scotland.
Prime will be the first European-developed rocket destined to launch small satellites into orbit, with a debut flight expected in the coming months. Orbex is only 160 km from the launch site. Developers hope the upcoming Prime launch will be the first vertical launch from UK soil and will take place later this year or early next depending on progress in the certification process, test results and completion of work on the under-construction spaceport.
The Prime rocket will be able to carry satellites weighing up to 200 kg to an altitude of up to 1250 km. The 19-meter structure will use “renewable biopropane,” which will reduce emissions by 90% compared to similar fossil-fuel rockets.
The two-stage rocket is powered by seven 3D-printed engines (six for the first stage and one for the second). According to the developers, the design makes it possible to leave space debris neither in orbit nor in the atmosphere.
Outwardly, Prime looks like an ordinary rocket. However, the developers used low-carbon fuels, fully 3D printed engines, very light fuel tanks and new reusable technologies. In recent months, the company has been testing “printed” rocket engines.
There’s some serious rocket racing going on in the UK – Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne project is due to launch here in the summer, the project will launch from Cornwall Airport. Unlike VTOL rockets like Prime, Virgin Orbit uses a launch plane to breach the first “layer” of Earth’s atmosphere – this is known as a horizontal launch.
In April, construction began on a competing spaceport on the Shetland Islands, off the north coast of Scotland. Initial contacts have already been made by companies such as Lockheed Martin and Astra Space.
Back in 2019, Orbex launched the second tier of the reusable Prime with support from the European Space Agency (ESA) and two of the UK’s largest venture capital funds, BGF and Octopus Ventures. In a statement, the company claims that Prime is the first European-developed small satellite launch vehicle to reach this stage of technical maturity.
Contracts were signed back in 2019 to launch satellites from the British manufacturer SSTL and models from the Swiss startup Astrocast. Additionally, one of Orbex’s key investors, aerospace company Elecnor Deimos Space, has bought 24 Prime launches ahead of time.