British company reveals details about its smallsat launch vehicle

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LONDON — A British company has released new details about a small satellite launch vehicle it expects to have ready in the next few years, part of a growing number of ventures seeking to build and launch rockets from the country.

In a presentation at a Royal Aeronautical Society commercial space conference here Nov. 22, the head of Orbex said the company was making good progress in the development of a launch vehicle designed for launching small satellites primarily into polar orbits.

“We’re quite confident that this is a good business opportunity,” said Chris Larmour, chief executive of Orbex, in what he said was the first public presentation about the startup’s plans. “It’s a good opportunity, and it’s an interesting thing to do, too.”

Orbex is working on a small launch vehicle that Larmour says will be capable of placing up to 165 kilograms into polar orbits from a launch site on the north coast of Scotland. That site, he said, provides “a lot of sea” for launches to the north.

The company has a 1,200-square-meter development facility and a separate 1,000-square-meter engine test site, although Larmour declined to say where they were located. Orbex is planning a larger 2,000-square-meter factory to be built closer to the Scotland launch site once the vehicle is ready to go into production.

Orbex has been focusing on the development of a 6,750-pounds-force engine, incorporating components made with additive manufacturing, for the vehicle. The engine has been fired 45 times, he said, including a recent test where the engine shut down prematurely, as intended.

That engine is a key part of the effort by Orbex to reduce the mass of the vehicle. “One of the dirty little secrets of microlaunchers is they’re heavy,” he said. “We currently have a patent pending on a new architecture that removes about 30 percent of the inert mass of the vehicle.” Besides the use of composite materials, he said the vehicle will use six engines in its first stage, less than other similar small launchers in development.

Many basic details about the rocket remain under wraps, however. He declined to name the fuel that the engine will use along with liquid oxygen, other than to say it was neither methane nor the refined version of kerosene known as RP-1, but that the fuel remained liquid at liquid oxygen’s cryogenic temperatures.

Even the name of the rocket is proprietary. “The rocket does have a name internally, but we haven’t finally settled on what it’s going to be,” he said.

Orbex is in the process of closing a fourth round of funding, he said, primarily from wealthy individuals but also from venture capital firms. That includes financing announced in June from High-Tech Gründerfonds, a German seed-stage investment firm. Larmour did not disclose how much the company has raised to date but said in a later interview that the cumulative funding to date would be equivalent to a “Series A-” round.

Larmour declined to state when Orbex projected its first launch to take place. He later said he expected both the cost and schedule for developing his company’s vehicle to be similar to what Rocket Lab encountered for Electron, another small launcher. Rocket Lab started working on what would become Electron around 2010, with a first, partially-successful launch in May of this year. Rocket Lab has raised $148 million to date, although $75 million of that came in a Series D funding round in March intended to expand its production capabilities.

He didn’t give a price for a launch of the vehicle, but said that the company has letters of intent from a number of customers. He added the company expects to sign its first contract, for the launch of a 50-kilogram science satellite from an unidentified organization, by the end of the year. The company’s business plan calls for one launch a month, but Larmour said it can break even on just three launches a year.

Government support

Larmour praised the U.K. Space Agency for its support of an emerging small launch sector in the country, saying that it has been “extremely helpful” to the company. “I commend them for what they’re doing currently,” he said. “There are various processes going on in the U.K. Space Agency supporting U.K. launch, and I think the entire movement is fantastic.”

Among those processes is potential funding for companies like Orbex to support their vehicle efforts. The agency issued a call for proposals in February for grants to support the development of launch capabilities from the U.K. by 2020. The proposals put no limit on how much companies could request, but set a guideline of about 10 million pounds ($13 million).

“We had incredibly strong interest” in that call for proposals, said Claire Barcham, satellite launch program director at the U.K. Space Agency, in a separate conference presentation. The agency received 26 proposals, and has selected a “small number” of them for further consideration. “We hope to be in a position, quite shortly, to announce the outcome of that process.”

The government has also introduced legislation to establish a regulatory framework for launches from the country. That bill, currently being considered by the House of Lords, is on track to move on to the House of Commons in December and could be enacted as soon as early next year.

The U.K.’s focus on small launch vehicles and spaceports has raised some questions about whether that is the best use of government funding, given the growing number of small launch vehicle development projects taking place worldwide, all seeking a market whose size remains uncertain.

Barcham, though, said that developing a domestic launch capability was critical to ensuring that the country remained a leader in the overall smallsat market. “We have a thriving value chain for small satellites and their services in the U.K.,” she said, calling the lack of a launch capability a “missing link” for the industry. “We would like to enable small satellite launch, and suborbital spaceflight, from U.K. spaceports to help us to plug that gap in our value chain.”