Lockheed Martin, Orbex to launch from new British spaceport

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FARNBOROUGH, England — The British government announced July 16 that it will provide funding to two companies, including an American aerospace giant, who plan to use a newly announced launch site in Scotland.

The U.K. Space Agency, in the second of a two-part announcement about its launch plans, said it had awarded $31 million to Lockheed Martin and $7 million to Orbex to develop launch systems that will operate from a vertical launch site to be developed in Sutherland, Scotland. The agency announced the location of the launch site, but not its users, July 15.

Lockheed Martin will use the funding to establish launch operations from Sutherland as well as develop what it calls the Small Launch Orbital Maneuvering Vehicle (SL-OMV), an upper stage that will be manufactured by Moog in the U.K. to place up to six six-unit cubesats into orbit.

Lockheed didn’t disclose the vehicle that will launch from Sutherland, but industry sources have identified the vehicle as Rocket Lab’s Electron. Lockheed Martin made a strategic investment in Rocket Lab in 2015.

“The countdown to the first orbital rocket launch from U.K. soil has officially begun,” said Patrick Wood, Lockheed Martin’s U.K. country executive for space, in a company statement. “The U.K. government has stated its desire to grow the U.K.’s space sector to 10 percent of the global space economy by 2030. We are proud to be selected to help them achieve this goal.”

As part of the agreement, Lockheed Martin will develop an “advanced pathfinder” six-unit cubesat that will fly on the first mission using the SL-OMV. Lockheed is working on that satellite with Orbital Micro Systems, which is planning a constellation of satellites to collect weather data.

Orbex Prime launch
Orbex is developing Prime, a small launch vehicle it plans to launch from the Scotland spaceport. Credit: Orbex

Orbex, a British-based launch vehicle developer, will use the U.K. Space Agency funding to support development of a small launch vehicle called Prime. The company separately announced July 16 a $40 million funding round, of which the space agency grant is a part. Others contributing to the funding round include European venture capital firms Sunstone Technology Ventures and the High-Tech Gründerfonds.

Prime is a small launch vehicle intended to place smallsats into polar and sun-synchronous orbits. The company has yet to release many technical details about the vehicle, but noted it uses bio-propane as a fuel rather than more conventional choices like kerosene or liquid hydrogen.

“With our collective experience, we have developed a low mass, low carbon, high performance 21st century orbital launch vehicle, designed specifically to support the needs of the rapidly growing smallsat industry,” said Chris Larmour, chief executive of Orbex, in a company statement. “There is a significant launch backlog for small satellites globally and Orbex is primed to give industry and science a cost-effective, reliable and responsive route into space, directly from Europe.”

Both Lockheed Martin and Orbex plan to launch from Sutherland, a launch site the U.K. Space Agency announced July 15 it is providing more than $3 million to Highlands and Islands Enterprise to begin its development. The long-awaited decision, as well as plans to support proposed horizontal launch facilities elsewhere in the country, is part of an effort to fill a gap in a British space industry that is a leader in satellite manufacturing and operations.

“This will build on our global reputation for manufacturing small satellites and help the whole country capitalize on the huge potential of the commercial space age,” U.K. Business Secretary Greg Clark said in a statement.