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Orbex stakes claim to European smallsat launch market

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

FARNBOROUGH, England — With about $40 million in hand and an agreement to use a new launch site, British small launch vehicle startup Orbex argues that it’s joined the small group of companies in this sector of the industry that should be taken seriously.

Orbex, headquartered in the United Kingdom but with subsidiaries in Denmark and Germany, announced July 16 that it had raised £30 million ($39 million) from government and private sources. That total included £5.5 million provided by the British government through the U.K. Space Agency’s launch initiative.

Other sources of funding included two European venture capital funds, Sunstone Technology Ventures and the High-Tech Gründerfonds. Orbex announced July 17 that Spanish technology company Elecnor Deimos was taking a stake in Orbex, with Orbex becoming the preferred launch provider for future Elecnor Deimos satellites.

In a July 16 interview during the Farnborough International Airshow, Orbex Chief Executive Chris Larmour declined to go into the terms of the investments, including how much funding came from the various sources. He said that the funding, which he described as roughly equivalent to a Series A round, covered more than half of the estimated $70–75 million cost to develop the company’s Prime small launch vehicle. “It gets us a good way along the track to first launch,” he said.

That funding, he said, allows Orbex to stand out from the dozens of small launch vehicle efforts underway worldwide. “There are about 80 projects out there talking about building a small launcher,” he said. “But when you filter them on who has assets to do something, who has experience and understanding of the problem, who’s making progress, it’s a much smaller number: a handful of companies. I think Orbex, with this announcement, has joined that family.”

Orbex had been operating in a stealth mode, offering only a few hints about their plans on their website. Larmour gave one talk about the company’s launch plans at a Royal Aeronautical Society space conference in London last November. But with the funding in place and the agreement to launch from the U.K.’s new spaceport in Sutherland, Scotland, the company is more public about its work now.

Prime will be capable of placing 150 kilograms into a standard 500-kilometer sun-synchronous orbit, Larmour said. One unique aspect about the launch vehicle is its choice of propellants: liquid oxygen and bio-propane, a version of propane produced from biomass with a carbon footprint 90 percent lower than that of the rocket-grade version of kerosene known as RP-1.

“The entire vehicle has been built around that core starting decision,” he said. “That fuel drives a lot of benefits for a small launcher. It’s kind of overlooked.”

One key aspect of propane is that it remains liquid at cryogenic temperatures. That enabled a “coaxial tank” design for Prime where a central tube of propane is surrounded by an outer tank of liquid oxygen, creating structural mass savings in the rocket. The specific impulse — a measure of efficiency — of propane is also slightly higher than RP-1, he added. “That’s a good combination for this class of launcher.”

Orbex has been testing engines that use that propellant combination while working on the overall design of the rocket and other subsystems, like avionics. The company has about 15 employees now, but Larmour said he expects that headcount to double in three to four months and reach 40 or more by early 2019. The company plans to construct a factory for Prime in Scotland that will eventually employ 150.

The company is beginning planning for using the spaceport in northern Scotland that the British government announced July 15. That facility will be shared with Lockheed Martin, which plans to bring in another vehicle, most likely Rocket Lab’s Electron, to launch small satellites.

While Electron and Prime are similar in performance, they have a number of key differences, including different fuels: Electron uses RP-1 while Prime uses propane. Larmour said he expected that the two companies would have separate launch pads at the spaceport while sharing some common infrastructure, like range safety and site security.

“We’ll spend the next few months talking to all kinds of stakeholders involved,” he said. “Where it’s helpful to work in common, we’ll do it.”

Other than the Elecnor Deimos announcement, Orbex has not announced any customers for Prime, whose first launch from Scotland is expected in the second half of 2021. Larmour said he thinks the business case for Prime will focus more on providing convenience to European customers rather than on low price.

“One of the core differentiators for our company is that we’re based geographically in Europe,” he said. That should be attractive, he believed, to European satellite developers, who would not have to deal with logistical and regulatory hassles with launching their satellites outside Europe. “There’s willingness to look at solutions that are a little bit easier to access in time and space, and the price point may not be as sensitive an issue.” Larmour declined to give an estimated launch price for the vehicle.

He added in a July 18 presentation at a U.K. Space Agency launch workshop held at the air show that he was not interested in competing head-to-head with U.S.-based launch vehicles. “Perhaps unusually, we’re focused on a very international market,” he said. “There are a lot of competitors in the United States of America. We’re happy for them to compete with each other, and we’ll focus on Europe.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree...