UK space company Orbex has unveiled its new rocket for the first time and it is one for the record books. The Prime rocket sports the world’s largest 3D-printed rocket engine and is also the first commercial rocket to work with bio-propane, reducing carbon emissions by 90 percent compared to traditional fuels.
Orbex Prime is a two-stage rocket. The company presented Stage 2 while Stage 1 was still under wraps, although it is expected to be a reusable vehicle. Stage 2 is made from a specially formulated carbon fiber and aluminum composite mixture. It is printed in a single piece, so it doesn’t have any joints or welding that could weaken the rocket under extreme temperature and pressure fluctuations. The way it is built allows the rocket to be 30 percent lighter and 20 percent more efficient than other small launchers.
Small launchers are ideal to launch nanosatellites into Earth’s orbit. These nanosats are any satellite that weighs less than 10 kilograms (22 pounds), and more and more companies are investing in the development of smaller satellites or a constellation of satellites instead of building massive ones. This is to save on the cost of actually sending stuff to space, which remains significant.
Orbex will operate from the proposed spaceport of Sunderland in the Scottish Highlands, with Orbex Prime expected to have its maiden launch in 2021. During this launch, it will carry an experimental payload from Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. Orbex say they are already planning several launches and have several companies booking spaces on their rockets.
“Since the announcement in July 2018 that we had been chosen to launch from the Sutherland spaceport, Orbex has been on an incredible journey, largely behind-the-scenes. That is changing today, as we publicly reveal the company’s technical and commercial momentum. Not only do we have a full engineering prototype of the complete Stage 2 of the Prime rocket, but also a growing roster of customers hoping to be among the first to launch satellites from Scotland,” Orbex CEO Chris Larmour said in a statement. “We are looking forward to the next steps in our development from our new home in Scotland.”
The Prime vehicle will launch satellites to altitudes of up to 1,250 kilometers (776 miles) in either polar or sun-synchronous orbits (they cross any point of the Earth’s orbit at the same local mean solar time).