A sort of space race in the UK has accelerated in recent weeks, as aerospace company Orbex unveiled its Kinloss launch pad in February and Skyrora opened its Midlothian rocket engine test facility this week.
The facility was commissioned in less than six months and Skyrora honored the European Space Agency (ESA) for a grant awarded in 2021 which partly funded the construction of the site.
The ESA grant was part of a plan to foster new commercial space transportation services – which seems like a good idea given the current political situation and the fact that commercial satellite companies find themselves looking alternatives to space launch services provided by Russian Soyuz rockets.
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On test is Skyrora’s 70kN bipropeller engine, nine of which power the first stage of the three-stage Skyrora XL rocket, which the company hopes to launch from UK soil this year.
The payload mass of the 22.7 meter Skyrora XL can reach 315 kg, depending on the orbit required, so it is not a direct replacement for some of the heavier Russian rockets which are no longer accessible to many spacecraft manufacturers and operators. However, the current global situation has demonstrated the benefits of space assets and has drawn attention to a domestic launch capability for the UK.
Noting the conflict in Ukraine, Skyrora Founder and CEO Volodymyr Levykin said: “We would usually have the whole Skyrora family here to celebrate such an achievement, but unfortunately our Ukrainian colleagues cannot be with us.
“Without them this feat of engineering would not have been possible and I am sure we will be able to celebrate with them again very soon.”
Indeed, Skyrora has a subsidiary center located in Dnipro. The city in central eastern Ukraine has been the target of Russian airstrikes, according to reports. Dnipro has played a major role in rocketry from the Soviet era to the present, making it a prime location for a space startup looking to leverage talent. However, lately, Levykin has understandably been more concerned on how best to help the company’s Ukrainian employees.
The Skyrora facility, located above a disused quarry, consists of three test beds and can accommodate up to 20 people. It’s also the largest of its kind in the UK, according to the company.
As Skyrora continues to test its engines, another UK-based rocketeer, Orbex, has erected a launch pad at its test site in Kinloss, Scotland.
Dubbed “LP1”, the pad is designed to allow the company to conduct full dress rehearsals of its own launch vehicle, Orbex Prime, which will be capable of launching small satellites weighing around 150kg into low Earth orbit. The launches should eventually take place from Space Hub Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands.
The company continued its Kinloss adventure with a visit from UK Space Agency CEO Paul Bate and Deputy CEO Ian Annett to its Forres headquarters. ®