UK-based space startup Orbex has unveiled the world's largest 3D-printed rocket engine. The single-piece, cryogenic liquid-fueled engine is installed in the second stage of an engineering prototype of the company's Orbex Prime launcher and is claimed to be more powerful by volume than many heavy launchers.
The Orbex Prime is being developed under a £5.5-million ($7.3-million) award from the British government. A second award of £23.5 million ($31 million) is going to Lockheed Martin, which is building the launch facilities in Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands and a new satellite deployment system called the Launch Orbital Manoeuvring Vehicle (SL-OMV) that is capable of handling six CubeSats headed for six separate orbits.
According to Orbex, the Prime is up to 30 percent lighter and 20 percent more efficient than other launchers in the same category. This is because the engine was printed in a single piece rather than assembled from several parts, eliminating weaknesses due to joints and welds.
In addition, the rocket is fueled by central carbon-fiber tank filled with biopropane surrounded by an outer tank of liquid oxygen. Biopropane is propane that is produced from biomass, sludge, or agricultural waste, but is chemically identical to propane from fossil fuels. Orbex says that it is clean-burning and produces 10 percent of the carbon emissions of fossil hydrocarbon fuels.
The first flight of the Orbex Prime is scheduled for 2021 and will include an experimental payload from Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. (SSTL), and is billed as the first demonstration of an end-to-end launch capability for a British rocket launching a British satellite from a British spaceport.
"Since the announcement in July 2018 that we had been chosen to launch from the Sutherland spaceport, Orbex has been on an incredible journey, largely behind-the scenes," says Chris Larmour, Orbex CEO. "That is changing today, as we publicly reveal the company's technical and commercial momentum. Not only do we have a full engineering prototype of the complete Stage two of the Prime rocket, but also a growing roster of customers hoping to be among the first to launch satellites from Scotland."
The animation below discusses the Orbex Prime and its missions.
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