A small company in Scotland is boldly going in a more cost effective and environmentally friendly way than has ever been done before. In an unassuming factory on the outskirts of the Scottish town of Forres, you’ll find the latest development in Europe’s space program.
Orbex is a private company specialising in low-cost orbital launch vehicles for the small satellite sector. This month, they let cameras into their office for a behind the scenes look at how they are pioneering the next generation of orbital launch vehicles.
The tour included their new mission control center which will be used to control launches from Scotland and other locations, as well as engine tests from two testing sites.
Like it’s American counterpart, Space X, Orbex is committed to driving down the cost of space transportation. From its Scottish factory, Orbex has installed many new and cutting edge systems including the largest carbon fiber winding machine in Europe.
This 18-metre long machine automates the rapid weaving of the intricate materials required to build large rocket structures. The company has been working for years to find the perfect carbon fiber blend which is now used in its Prime rocket.
Primed for launch
Everything about the Prime is designed for maximum efficiency. It will be 30% lighter than rockets of a similar size accelerating from 0 to 1,330 km/h in just 60 seconds.
They are also taking 3D printing onto a whole new level. Earlier in the year, they showed how they were using the technology to create what is the largest single piece printed rocket engine in the world.
This, they say, is something which has ‘never been done before’, and according to Orbex Chief Executive Chris Larmour, 3D printing will be the future of rocket construction.
“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.”
Prime will also make new leaps forward in terms of sustainability. It will use biopropane, a clean-burning and renewable fuel, which reduces carbon emissions by 90% compared to the basic kerosene fuels used in most rockets. Unlike other rockets, they have also been designed to leave no orbital debris and to be reusable. They will use a low mass concept to recover the main stage of the rocket to be used again and again.
The behind the scenes showcase was also an opportunity to show off their brand-new mission control centre. From here, flight controllers can access multiple streams of data during launch and flight allowing them full remote command of the vehicle throughout the course of the mission.
Until now, the centre has been used to monitor engines and simulate flight operations. Orbex also has a couple of rocket engine tests sites, one in Denmark and another at a secure location in the UK. They are also expected to open a proposed space port in Sutherland from which the Prime Rocket will launch.
This, then, could be the future of space travel: leaner, fitter, lighter and much more sustainable than anything which has gone before.