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Fri May 27 2022

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Rocket launchpad construction begins

10 Dec 21 Orbex has begun construction of the UK’s first new rocket launchpad in 50 years.

Orbex has released an artist's visualisation of the new facility
Orbex has released an artist's visualisation of the new facility

The private small-satellite launch services provider has commissioned Motive Offshore Group, a Scottish company specialising in the design and manufacture of marine and lifting equipment, to fabricate and install the launch platform at a dedicated test site near Kinloss, close to the Orbex headquarters in Forres.

It will be the first orbital launchpad constructed in the UK since satellite-carrying rocket Black Arrow was tested over 50 years ago.

Although Orbex will operate its launches from Space Hub Sutherland, the test launch platform at Kinloss will allow for full ‘dress rehearsals’ of launch procedures.

The launch platform, known as Orbex LP1, is expected to be fully operational by early 2022. It will support the testing of Orbex´s Prime rocket, a micro-launcher designed to transport small satellites weighing around 150kg to low Earth orbit. Although actual launches of the Orbex Prime rocket will not take place at the Kinloss site, the launch platform will be fully capable of launching an orbital rocket, allowing for full ‘dress rehearsals’ of launch procedures.

Orbex LP1 is the first launchpad of its kind to be built in the UK since the High Down Rocket Test Site facility on the Isle of Wight, which was decommissioned in the early 1970s. High Down was the test site for the Black Arrow rocket, the first – and so far only – British-made rocket to successfully deliver a satellite into Earth's orbit, launching from Woomera in Australia on 28 October 1971.

The new launch platform in Kinloss will enable Orbex to accelerate plans to launch Prime from its ‘home’ spaceport at Sutherland in the north of Scotland. Space Hub Sutherland is claimed to be the world’s first carbon neutral spaceport and is the only spaceport in the UK to have received full planning permission. Construction of the spaceport is due to begin early in 2022 ahead of the first expected launch of Orbex Prime later in the year.

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The new launch platform includes the infrastructure and supporting services that will enable a variety of integration tests to take place during the launch campaign preparation, including the testing of the main propellant tanks and multi-engine hot fire testing under vertical firing conditions. It will also enable the launch operations team to test launch procedures in advance of the first expected launch.

Chris Larmour, CEO of Orbex, said: “The ability for our engineers to test Prime on its own launchpad is a major advancement on the roadmap to launch, and we are happy to already be constructing this major piece of infrastructure with Motive Offshore, a partner which has a very strong track record in other relevant industries. This will be the first launchpad of its kind built in the UK for more than half a century and we look forward to seeing it completed and ready to go into service in the New Year.”

James Gregg, COO at Motive Offshore Group, said: “Motive Offshore Group welcomes the opportunity to work with Orbex on this exciting project. Whilst the Aerospace arena may be new territory for Motive, we are completely focused on the standards and performance required to deliver outstanding custom engineering, so very much look forward to transferring our skills and expertise on this project.”

The UK Space Agency welcomed the news that British company Orbex is constructing the test facility. Deputy CEO Ian Annett said: “The construction of this new facility marks another major milestone in our ambitions to become a modern, agile spacefaring nation. Orbex is an innovative spaceflight company developing its own launch vehicle which will be tested at this new facility, before launching from Space Hub Sutherland. This is a very exciting time for the UK space sector, as we look ahead to the first ever satellite launches from UK soil next year.”

The UK Space Agency has supported the development of Orbex’s Prime Rocket with £5.5 million of funding, as part of the government’s plans to enable small satellite launch from UK spaceports.

Space Hub Sutherland is one of seven potential spaceport sites across the UK and is being developed by Highlands and Islands Enterprise. The spaceport is expected to generate around 60 jobs in Caithness and Sutherland, and a total of 250 jobs in the wider region.

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