Imperial College Space Society attends the unveiling of Orbex’s new 3D-printed upper stage rocket

In a dark and spacious room, with upbeat music accompanying a blue-lit bar, a crowd was gathering to await the latest product reveal from a hot British start-up. As the CEO took the stage, they were ushered to their seats, and a mass of cameras turned to face him. After an enthusiastic speech, he turned with a flourish as the curtain behind him dropped to reveal the sleek black shape of… a rocket.

British start-up Orbex has revealed new flight hardware at the opening of their production facility in Forres, Scotland. The upper stage rocket which was revealed is part of the company’s Prime launch vehicle, which is set to become the first British-built rocket to launch to space in 50 years. The event featured speeches from the president of the Royal Aeronautical Society, Scottish partners, and the head of the UK Space Agency, who noted a predicted 30,000 new jobs in the industry over the next 10 years. Imperial College Space Society (previously ICSEDS) was also represented at the event, receiving a mention from CEO Chris Larmour. Presenters stressed the importance and strength of the UK space industry, the new opportunities afforded by recent technological breakthroughs, and the rise of commercial launch companies world-wide.

The small-satellite movement, which favours multiple cheap satellites as a replacement for larger conventional ones, has finally made it to the UK. With uncertainty about the future relationship with European launch providers, the UK government is keen to support homegrown launch capability. Orbex is one of several start-ups looking to capitalise on this new opportunity, but is the first to demonstrate full-scale hardware.

Prime features the most powerful 3D printed engine ever built, as well as an innovative propellant tank system that Orbex claims reduces the weight of the rocket by approximately 30%. The rocket also sports the largest payload bay size of any in its class, which Orbex says will be attractive to satellite operators. The rocket runs on bio-propane and liquid oxygen, reducing the carbon footprint of a launch, and will feature a rapid de-orbiting system to reduce its contribution to space junk. When completed, it is expected to launch from the new Scottish spaceport in Sutherland, and will compete with similar small launchers such as Rocket Labs’ Electron. Launch services are expected to commence in 2021.

Imperial College Space Society is supported by Orbex, receiving funds for our aerospace design projects including high powered rocketry and rocket engine design. The society also runs guest lectures and Q&A sessions with researchers and companies at the leading edge of this new era in space.

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