Skyrora working towards 2023 orbital launch after suborbital failure

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BREMEN, Germany — Scotland-based launch startup Skyrora is focused on making a first orbital launch attempt late next year, building on experience from a suborbital attempt in Iceland.

Skyrora’s team took their 11-meter-long Skylark L single-stage suborbital launch vehicle to Iceland’s Langanes peninsula in October to attempt to reach above the Karman line.

The rocket however reached an altitude of only around 300 meters, due an anomaly now discovered to be a software issue, and crashed into the Norwegian Sea. Skyrora plans to have divers locate and retrieve the rocket for further research, including how the engines scale up for reusability. 

The launch however did provide the team with around 60% of what they hoped to accomplish for the launch, Derek Harris, business operations manager at Skyrora, told SpaceNews at the Space Tech Expo Europe in Bremen, Germany, particularly in terms of proving mobility and agility.

Skyrora is planning on another Skylark L launch from Iceland around April next year while preparing for a first orbital launch attempt with the Skyrora XL from the SaxaVord Spaceport being developed on Shetland off the coast of Scotland.

Skyrora XL is a three-stage rocket using 3D-printed engines designed to place payloads weighing up to 315 kilograms into sun-synchronous orbit. 

“We have the majority of the engines now completed for the first stage, which carries nine engines,” Harris said. 

“Five are printed and qualified so the rest are just being worked on at the moment. They should be ready by around early spring, which should then allow it to be integrated with the tanks and then have the static passed in the first stage.” Following this will be whole vehicle integration and a static fire test.  

The Skyrora team is around 150, mostly in the UK but with sites and research and development in Germany, Slovakia and Ukraine, the latter of which has been impacted by the Russian invasion.

The focus is firmly on the engineering work for launch, with Harris stating that support from the European Space Agency with grant funding, and, for example, Space Scotland, a government body, is making various aspects of preparing for launch a much easier process. Requisite licensing processes for launch are underway, with the support of the UK Space Agency.

The Civil Aviation Authority, the UK equivalent of the U.S. FAA, has just issued the first license for a British spaceport under the Space Industry Act 2018.

This brings Spaceport Cornwall in southwestern England a step closer to hosting a launch by Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne air-launch system and the first ever orbital launch from the UK.

Skyrora is in competition with Orbex, another UK launch startup, to make the first vertical orbital launch from British soil. The firm is developing a launch vehicle named Prime, capable of placing up to 180 kilograms into orbit, which it plans to launch from the Sutherland spaceport in Scotland.

Beyond this, German startups Isar Aerospace and Rocket Factory Augsburg are providing competition on the continent with their respective Spectrum and RFA One launchers, aiming to make their first attempts to reach orbit in late 2023. 

The competition for a limited pool of contracts may be fierce among these and other emerging European launch startups, but the indication is that, as demonstrated to an extent by initiatives such as ESA’s Boost! Program, and the force of wider European political trends, that there is a place for commercial launch providers to boost European autonomy and independence in space.