Skyrora unveil their UK-built space vehicle
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Virgin Orbit’s “Start Me Up” mission may have failed to reach orbit this week, but other firms are still vying for the title of first successful such rocket launch from UK soil. While exact dates have yet to be confirmed, Both Orbex and Skyrora are looking to launch rockets from sites in Scotland later this year. Unlike Monday’s launch, both of these missions will be traditional, vertical-style lift-offs from a ground-based launch pad, rather than an air launch from under the wing of a plane. Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne was successfully deployed in this fashion on Monday night, with the rocket reaching its second stage and exiting the Earth’s atmosphere before a so-called “anomaly” occurred, bringing the mission to an unexpected end.
Responding to the failure of the Start Me Up mission, Orbex CEO Chris Lamour said: “Space is never easy, so we were sorry to learn that Virgin Orbit’s first horizontal orbital space launch from the UK did not go as planned.
“We know how much time, effort and energy must have been invested to deliver that launch attempt, and we wish them well for their next mission.
“The Orbex team is fully focused on introducing the UK to vertical orbital launches with the debut of our UK-built environmentally-friendly rocket, Prime.
“We will be launching from our own pad at Sutherland Spaceport in Scotland in the near future.”
According to Orbex, the advantage of their 62-feet-tall Prime rocket — which was first unveiled to the European space community back in May last year — is how, as a so-called “microlauncher”, it will offer a dedicated launch service for satellite manufacturers and operators.
This will contrast with larger, “rideshare” launchers, like SpaceX’s transporter missions, in which, Orbex says, “small satellites are often a secondary payload, and frequently face significant delays”.
Orbex is headquartered in the town of Forres, in Moray, Scotland, and announced late last year that it would be developing a new and state-of-the-art production facility in Scotland that would employ around 400 people.
UK Science Minister George Freeman said: “This is a hugely exciting time for the UK space and satellite sector.
“Orbex Prime is a remarkable feat of engineering from a British rocket company, pioneering more sustainable and innovative fuels that cut carbon emissions.
“It is also fantastic to see Moray-based Orbex creating more high-quality jobs, demonstrating the value of our thriving space sector to support emerging clusters of innovation to help level up the whole of the UK.”
UK Space Agency Deputy CEO Ian Annett said: “We are on the cusp on an historic moment, with Orbex playing a leading role in generating a brand-new launch capability in the UK, while creating opportunities for people and businesses across the country.”
He concluded: “I can’t wait to see Prime lift off from Sutherland.”
Racing to beat them to orbit, meanwhile, is Edinburgh-based private space company Skyrora, which is planning to launch their three-stage Skyrora XL rocket from the SaxaVord Spaceport on the Lamba Ness peninsula of Unst, in the Shetland Islands.
Skyrora Business Operations Manager Derek Harris told Express.co.uk: “Skyrora plans to launch the first British-built rocket from UK soil as early as the end of this year.
“We are awaiting the approval of our launch vehicle licence application from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which was submitted last year.
“Following the key milestones of 2022, such as our successful 70kN engine test and the second stage static fire test of our flagship orbital rocket, Skyrora XL, we have entered 2023 in a great position.
“We’re on track with our technical developments and will begin testing the first stage engines soon. Virgin Orbit’s anomaly hasn’t changed our plans – everyone knows how complex a launch can be – and we’re looking forward to a Skyrora vertical launch soon”.
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In October last year, the first undertook a launch of the suborbital Skylark L rocket from Langanes, Iceland, in order to test some of the processes and components that will be used for the orbital launch of Skyrora XL near the end of this year.
Unfortunately, after blasting off from the launch pad, a “software-related anomaly” cut the rocket’s maiden flight short with it landing harmlessly in the sea some 1,600 feet from the launch pad.
In a statement, the firm said: “As Skyrora approaches launch at the end of 2023, the demonstrator launch of Skylark L enabled the team to test 70 percent of the technology which will be applied to the systems of the Skyrora XL vehicle, providing a key incremental learning opportunity to increase technological readiness.
“The team is already preparing for future launches of Skylark L to establish the launch heritage key to reaching orbit.”
The end of last year, Skyrora CEO Volodymyr Levykin added, saw the firm “attempt to conduct our largest and first-ever launch to space from Iceland using our innovative and agile mobile spaceport solution, which allowed the operation to take place in record time.”
In fact, the launch infrastructure was set up within seven days of the firm arriving at the Lamba Ness site, with the packaging and shipping of the same only having taken a month beforehand.
Mr Levykin continued: “Although the vehicle experienced a software-related anomaly and landed safely in the Norwegian Sea after leaving the pad, this test launch was an overall triumph and valuable learning experience for our team.
“Achieving the mission’s primary objective to test technology and systems ahead of an orbital launch of Skyrora XL amid the war in Ukraine and several extreme Icelandic storms speaks to the team’s unwavering tenacity and talent.
“I am certain these qualities in our team will enable Skyrora to become the first UK company to conduct a vertical orbital launch from UK soil […] establishing sovereign launch capabilities in the process.”
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