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Orbex Space: Sustainable Space Launches with Bio-Propane Innovation

Written by Maya Belkovska
Published June 28th, 2024
21 min read
Updated July 16th, 2024

Summary

Orbex Space is developing sustainable rocket technology with bio-propane fuel and reusable components. Their Prime rocket and Space Hub Sutherland are designed to reduce the carbon footprint in aerospace, promoting eco-friendly launches. Orbex aims to advance clean space exploration through these initiatives.
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Details

Name
Orbex Space
Date of establishment
2015-01

Deep dive

Orbex Space, founded in 2015 and headquartered in Forres, Scotland, is a leading company in the aerospace industry specializing in sustainable small satellite launch services. Orbex Space's mission is to pioneer sustainable space launch solutions through innovative technologies like bio-propane fuel and reusable rocket components, reducing environmental impact while advancing the boundaries of space exploration.

Did you know that Orbex Space's bio-propane fuel technology reduces carbon emissions by up to 90% compared to traditional rocket fuels, making significant strides towards carbon neutrality in space exploration?

Source: uabio

Company Background

History

Orbex Space, a UK-based private space launch company, was founded in 2015 by Chris Larmour and a team of aerospace engineers and entrepreneurs to develop environmentally friendly small satellite launch services. In 2018, the organization announced the Prime launch vehicle, which uses bio-propane fuel that reduces carbon emissions by up to 90% compared to traditional rocket fuels​. Later in 2019, company secured £30 million in funding from private and public sources, including the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency, and unveiled its first full-scale Prime rocket stage. The same year, they established its headquarters in Forres, Scotland, and a rocket development facility in Copenhagen, Denmark. In 2020, company signed a 50-year lease for Space Hub Sutherland, the first vertical satellite launch spaceport in the UK. By 2022, Orbex completed its first full-scale Prime rocket and conducted extensive testing while expanding its workforce. In 2023, the company received £40.4 million in a Series C funding round led by the Scottish National Investment Bank to support the final stages of development and initial launch operations. In 2024, organization secured commercial contracts with various satellite companies and completed its first successful test launch, marking a significant milestone towards regular commercial operations. This company aims to provide flexible, sustainable, and cost-effective launch services for small satellites, setting itself apart in the industry through its emphasis on environmental sustainability and innovative engineering​​.

Founders and Key Figures

Orbex Space was co-founded by Chris Larmour and Jonas Bjarnoe, both of whom bring extensive experience and expertise to the company. Chris Larmour, who serves as CEO, has a diverse background in technology and aerospace, having held senior positions in various high-tech industries. He has extensive experience in business management and strategic planning, and prior to founding company, he was involved in several startups and technology companies focusing on innovation and growth strategies. Jonas Bjarnoe, the Chief Technology Officer (CTO), has a strong background in aerospace engineering and technology development. He has significant experience in designing and developing rocket engines and propulsion systems, and his expertise has been critical in driving the technical innovations at organization, particularly in the development of their environmentally friendly rocket technologies.

Current Key Executives

Company's key executives bring a combination of technical expertise, industry experience, and strategic leadership, driving their mission to provide sustainable and innovative small satellite launch services. Chris Larmour, the CEO, brings a wealth of experience in leading high-tech companies and startups, focusing on strategic planning and business growth. Jonas Bjarnoe, the CTO, leads the technical direction of Orbex with his extensive background in aerospace engineering, overseeing the development of rocket technologies. David Lindley, the Chief Operating Officer (COO), has a robust background in operations management within the aerospace and defense sectors, excelling in supply chain management, production, and quality assurance. Matthew Bull, the Chief Commercial Officer (CCO), drives revenue growth and commercial strategy, forging partnerships and securing contracts within the aerospace industry. Lucy Edge, the Chief Financial Officer (CFO), brings extensive experience in financial management and strategy, having held senior financial roles in various high-tech and aerospace companies, focusing on financial planning, investment, and risk management.

Funding and Investors

Orbex Space has successfully attracted significant investment from various public and private sources to support its development and growth. In 2018, the company announced an initial funding round of £30 million, which came from a mix of private investors and public sources, including the UK Space Agency, the European Space Agency (ESA), High-Tech Gründerfonds (HTGF), Elecnor Deimos, and business angels. This early funding was instrumental in developing company’s environmentally friendly Prime rocket and establishing its headquarters in Forres, Scotland, and a rocket development facility in Copenhagen, Denmark. In 2021, this organization announced additional investments to further accelerate the development of its launch systems and infrastructure, with participation from new and existing investors, highlighting continued confidence in Orbex’s mission and technology. In 2022, company secured £40.4 million in a Series C funding round, led by the Scottish National Investment Bank, to support the final stages of development and initial launch operations of the Prime rocket. Other notable investors in this round included Heartcore Capital, Octopus Ventures, HTGF, Elecnor Deimos, and strategic private investors. The funds raised have been used to advance the development of the Prime rocket, invest in infrastructure such as the construction of the launch pad at Space Hub Sutherland in Scotland, and expand the workforce by hiring additional engineers, scientists, and support staff to drive the company's growth and operational capabilities.

Strategic Partnerships and Contracts

The company has also secured several commercial contracts with satellite companies, reflecting strong market demand for their launch services. These partnerships are crucial for revenue generation and establishing company’s presence in the competitive small satellite launch market.

Orbex Space’s funding history showcases a solid financial foundation supported by a mix of public agencies and private investors, enabling the company to pursue its goal of providing sustainable and innovative launch solutions.

Products and Services

Core Products/Services

Prime Rocket

The Prime rocket is Orbex Space’s leading launch vehicle, designed to provide efficient and sustainable launch services specifically for small satellites. This advanced rocket utilizes bio-propane, a renewable and carbon-neutral fuel, significantly decreasing its environmental impact compared to traditional rocket fuels. Its innovative design includes reusable components, particularly a reusable first stage, which helps minimize waste and promotes sustainability. Additionally, the Prime rocket features a highly efficient architecture with lightweight carbon fiber and aluminum alloy structures, enhancing fuel efficiency and overall performance. This combination of renewable fuel and reusable, lightweight materials ensures the Prime rocket is not only eco-friendly but also cost-effective and reliable for a wide range of space missions. By integrating these advanced technologies, Orbex Space sets a new standard for sustainable space exploration and satellite deployment. The Prime rocket is a testament to Orbex Space's commitment to environmental stewardship and innovation in the aerospace industry.

Space Hub Sutherland

Orbex will carry out its launches from Space Hub Sutherland, located in Scotland. This spaceport is the UK's first vertical satellite launch facility, designed with a strong emphasis on sustainability. The facility incorporates numerous features aimed at reducing its environmental impact and protecting local ecosystems. Orbex’s launch operations at Space Hub Sutherland are meticulously planned to minimize their environmental footprint, reflecting the company's broader commitment to sustainable practices in space exploration. By integrating eco-friendly technologies and practices, Space Hub Sutherland exemplifies a modern approach to spaceport design, balancing technological advancement with environmental stewardship. This approach not only supports the immediate goals of Orbex’s satellite launches but also sets a precedent for future spaceport developments worldwide. Through their operations at Space Hub Sutherland, Orbex is leading the way in creating a more sustainable future for space exploration, showcasing how cutting-edge technology can coexist with ecological responsibility. This alignment with sustainable principles underscores Orbex's dedication to innovation and environmental care in the rapidly evolving aerospace industry.

Integrated Launch Services

Orbex excels in delivering comprehensive, end-to-end launch services tailored specifically for small satellite operators. Their expertise lies in offering bespoke launch solutions that cater to flexible schedules and varied payload configurations, ensuring that they meet the unique requirements of each customer. Orbex’s turnkey services encompass every critical stage of the launch process, from detailed mission planning and precise payload integration to smooth launch operations and thorough post-launch support. This holistic approach guarantees a seamless and efficient experience for clients, underscoring Orbex's dedication to providing customized solutions and dependable support throughout the satellite deployment process. By handling every aspect of the launch, Orbex ensures that their clients can focus on their core missions without worrying about the complexities of the launch process. This integrated service model not only enhances operational efficiency but also significantly reduces the risk and complexity associated with satellite launches. Orbex's commitment to delivering high-quality, reliable launch services makes them a trusted partner for small satellite operators, driving innovation and success in the rapidly evolving space industry. Their focus on customization and client satisfaction highlights their position as a leader in the field, continually striving to advance the capabilities and reliability of satellite launch services.

Contribution to Carbon Reduction and Sustainability

Orbex Space exemplifies its commitment to sustainability and innovation through its core products and services. The Prime rocket utilizes bio-propane, significantly reducing carbon emissions and establishing it as one of the most environmentally friendly launch vehicles available. Incorporating reusable technology in rocket components further enhances sustainability by minimizing waste and resource consumption throughout the launch process. Company extends its eco-friendly practices to operations at Space Hub Sutherland, where both rocket design and launch operations are optimized to reduce environmental footprint and promote a greener approach to space exploration. These initiatives underscore their Space's leadership in providing environmentally conscious solutions within the space launch industry.

Innovation and Technology

Bio-Propane Fuel

Sustainable Rocket Fuel: Orbex’s Prime rocket uses bio-propane, a renewable and carbon-neutral fuel. This choice of fuel is a significant innovation aimed at reducing the carbon footprint of rocket launches. Bio-propane is derived from biological sources and burns more cleanly compared to traditional hydrocarbon fuels, producing fewer pollutants and greenhouse gases.

3D Printing Technology

Advanced Manufacturing: Orbex utilizes advanced 3D printing techniques to manufacture rocket engines and other complex components. This approach allows for:

  • Reduced Manufacturing Time: Faster production of intricate parts compared to traditional methods.

  • Cost Efficiency: Lower production costs due to reduced material waste and streamlined manufacturing processes.

  • Design Optimization: The ability to create optimized geometries that are difficult or impossible to achieve with conventional manufacturing.

Lightweight Materials

The Prime rocket is constructed using lightweight carbon fiber composites and aluminum alloys. These materials enhance fuel efficiency by reducing weight, which leads to lower fuel consumption and increased payload capacity. Additionally, the high strength-to-weight ratio of these materials improves the rocket’s structural integrity and performance.

Reusable Rocket Components

The Prime rocket features a reusable first stage, which is designed to be recovered and refurbished for multiple launches. This reusability reduces waste by minimizing the environmental impact and decreasing the need for new materials, and it also lowers overall launch costs through component reuse.

Integrated Launch Services

Orbex Space offers integrated launch services that provide end-to-end solutions, including mission planning, payload integration, and post-launch support. This comprehensive approach enhances efficiency by streamlining the launch process, making it more cost-effective for customers. Additionally, company offers customizable services to meet specific customer needs and requirements, ensuring tailored solutions for a wide range of missions.

Sustainable Spaceport Operations

Orbex’s launch operations at Space Hub Sutherland in Scotland are designed with sustainability in mind. The spaceport incorporates eco-friendly infrastructure to minimize environmental impact through sustainable construction and operational practices. Additionally, measures are implemented to protect and preserve the local environment and wildlife, ensuring that the local ecosystem is safeguarded during launch activities.

Innovative Engine Design

Company’s rocket engines are designed for high performance and efficiency, incorporating advanced propulsion systems that maximize thrust while minimizing fuel consumption. Additionally, the engines are engineered for reliability, ensuring consistent and dependable performance across multiple launches.

Case Studies

1. Development and Testing Milestones

In 2019, Orbex unveiled the first full-scale model of its Prime rocket stage, marking a pivotal milestone for the company. This significant achievement showcased company's ability to produce full-sized rocket components using cutting-edge manufacturing techniques. Among these techniques, 3D printing stood out, allowing for the creation of complex, high-precision parts that contribute to the rocket's overall efficiency and performance. Additionally, the use of lightweight materials such as carbon fiber and advanced aluminum alloys demonstrated their commitment to innovative, sustainable design practices. This full-scale model was not just a demonstration of technological prowess; it also underscored organization readiness for future launches, indicating that they are well-prepared to meet the demands of the rapidly growing small satellite market. The development and testing of the Prime rocket stage involved rigorous validation processes to ensure the reliability and safety of the rocket. These milestones are crucial as they highlight Orbex’s dedication to advancing space technology and achieving operational excellence. Each step forward in their development and testing phases brings company closer to realizing its goal of providing efficient, sustainable, and cost-effective launch services. This commitment to innovation and quality positions company as a leader in the aerospace industry, poised to make significant contributions to the future of space exploration and satellite deployment. Through these achievements, they continues to build a solid foundation for future success, reinforcing their status as a forward-thinking company at the forefront of space technology advancements.

2. Partnerships and Contracts

Between 2022 and 2023, company forged numerous strategic partnerships and secured lucrative commercial contracts with satellite operators to launch payloads in the coming years. These partnerships underscore the robust market trust in Orbex's launch capabilities and highlight the escalating demand for their cutting-edge, eco-friendly launch solutions. This achievement underscores company's adeptness in addressing industry demands through their advanced technology and commitment to sustainability, positioning them as a leader in the evolving space launch sector.

3. Engine Testing Success

The company achieved significant milestones with a series of successful engine hot-fire tests for the Prime rocket, affirming the robust performance and reliability of their propulsion systems. These tests not only validate Orbex's technological prowess but also ensure compliance with rigorous standards for upcoming launches, bolstering their standing in the competitive space launch sector. This accomplishment underscores company's commitment to advancing space propulsion technology and reinforces their reputation as a trusted leader in the industry.

4. Space Hub Sutherland Development

In 2020, company achieved a major milestone by securing a 50-year lease for Space Hub Sutherland in Scotland, the UK's first vertical satellite launch spaceport. This landmark agreement firmly establishes company as a key player in the UK's rapidly expanding space industry, granting them exclusive access to a dedicated launch facility. It highlights organization's strategic emphasis on sustainable and eco-friendly launch methodologies, furthering their mission to advance environmentally conscious space exploration technologies and solidifying their leadership role in the sector.

5. Government and Institutional Support

Between 2018 and 2022, company secured substantial funding from both the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency. This financial support has been instrumental in advancing company's ambitious plans for developing their launch vehicle and associated infrastructure. It underscores the strategic significance of their mission within the broader framework of European and UK space endeavors, highlighting their role in enhancing regional space capabilities and fostering innovation in the aerospace sector.

While Orbex Space is gearing up for its first full-scale commercial launches, the successful completion of these key milestones, partnerships, and testing phases are strong indicators of the company’s progress and potential. The upcoming launches, following the detailed testing and development phases, are expected to provide concrete examples of company’s products and services in action.

Market Position

Industry Overview

The space launch industry is currently experiencing robust growth, driven by escalating demand for satellite-based services such as telecommunications, Earth observation, navigation, and scientific research. This growth is underpinned by several key trends and dynamics. First, there is a notable surge in the small satellite market, with SmallSats and CubeSats gaining popularity due to their affordability and versatility across commercial, scientific, and governmental applications. This trend is accompanied by an increasing need for frequent and cost-effective launches to support satellite constellations aimed at global internet coverage, remote sensing, and IoT networks. Second, there is a significant shift towards reusable rocket technologies aimed at lowering costs and enhancing sustainability. Leaders like SpaceX and Blue Origin are driving this trend, which newer entrants such as Orbex are also adopting. Environmental concerns are also driving efforts to explore eco-friendly fuels and sustainable operational practices. Lastly, the industry landscape is evolving with diverse new entrants offering specialized solutions, intensifying competition alongside established industry giants focusing on niche markets like small satellite launches to gain competitive edges.

Orbex Space is strategically positioned within the evolving space launch industry, specializing in small satellite launches to meet the increasing demand for Low Earth Orbit (LEO) deployments. Their Prime rocket is tailored specifically for this niche market, offering dedicated and adaptable launch services. Company distinguishes itself through its commitment to environmental sustainability, utilizing bio-propane fuel and integrating reusable rocket components to minimize environmental impact. The company leverages advanced 3D printing for efficient rocket engine production and employs lightweight materials like carbon fiber composites to enhance performance. Located at Space Hub Sutherland in Scotland, the UK's first vertical satellite launch spaceport, company benefits from a prime operational base in Europe. Supported by substantial funding from entities like the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency, alongside commercial contracts with satellite operators, this company demonstrates robust market confidence in its capabilities and potential for significant growth in the global space industry.

Competitors

Orbex Space competes in a dynamic market alongside several prominent players in the small satellite launch sector. Key competitors include Rocket Lab, known for its Electron rocket offering frequent and dedicated small satellite launches with a proven track record of over 30 successful missions and precise orbital deployment capabilities. SpaceX, utilizing the Falcon 9 for small satellite rideshare missions, distinguishes itself through cost efficiency via reusable rockets and economies of scale, coupled with extensive global launch infrastructure. Astra, with its Rocket 3 series, emphasizes rapid, flexible, and cost-effective launches tailored for small payload deliveries, supported by agile development practices. Virgin Orbit stands out with its air-launch system using LauncherOne, providing flexible launch locations and accessing a variety of orbits, offering competitive pricing and scheduling flexibility. Relativity Space employs advanced 3D printing for the Terran 1 rocket, focusing on customizable launches and future reusability to optimize manufacturing costs and meet specific small satellite deployment needs.

Orbex Space distinguishes itself in the competitive space launch industry through several key strengths. Firstly, the company prioritizes sustainability with the use of bio-propane, a renewable and carbon-neutral fuel, significantly reducing environmental impact. Their Prime rocket features reusable first-stage components, aligning with industry trends towards cost-effective and sustainable launch solutions. They leverages advanced 3D printing for rocket engine and component manufacturing, enhancing production efficiency, rapid prototyping capabilities, and design optimization. The incorporation of lightweight materials like carbon fiber composites and aluminum alloys further improves fuel efficiency and overall rocket performance. Strategically located at Space Hub Sutherland, the UK’s first vertical satellite launch spaceport, company benefits from optimal launch capabilities into polar and sun-synchronous orbits, crucial for Earth observation missions. Offering comprehensive end-to-end launch services, including mission planning, payload integration, and post-launch support, organization ensures a seamless and efficient customer experience. As a European company, company is strategically positioned to cater to the growing European space market, supported by regional funding, local support networks, and proximity to European customers. These factors collectively underscore Orbex Space’s commitment to innovation, sustainability, and leadership in the space launch industry.

Challenges

Technological Development: Continuing to innovate and refine their rocket technology, such as ensuring the reliability of 3D-printed components and optimizing the performance of their bio-propane fuel systems.

Regulatory Compliance: Navigating the complex regulatory landscape for space launches, including obtaining necessary licenses and permissions from national and international bodies.

Market Competition: Competing with established players like SpaceX and Rocket Lab, as well as emerging competitors, in the rapidly evolving small satellite launch market.

Financial Sustainability: Managing the high costs associated with research, development, and infrastructure investments required for space launch capabilities.

Operational Efficiency: Ensuring smooth operational processes at Space Hub Sutherland and achieving consistent launch success rates to maintain customer trust and satisfaction.

Opportunities

Growing Small Satellite Market: The increasing global demand for small satellites, driven by applications in telecommunications, Earth observation, and scientific research, represents a substantial market opportunity for Orbex's launch services. By providing specialized and dedicated launch services tailored to small satellite operators, company is well-positioned to capitalize on this expanding market segment and secure a significant market share.

Sustainability Leadership: Company distinguishes itself in the space launch industry through its strong environmental focus, highlighted by the use of bio-propane fuel and sustainable practices. This commitment appeals to customers and stakeholders who prioritize environmental responsibility, setting company apart and enhancing its appeal as a provider of eco-friendly launch solutions. By emphasizing sustainability, Orbex not only differentiates itself in the market but also strengthens its brand identity, attracting customers seeking greener alternatives in satellite launch services.

Innovative Technologies: This company integrates cutting-edge technologies like advanced 3D printing for manufacturing rocket engines and components, which optimizes production efficiency and reduces costs. Additionally, the incorporation of lightweight materials such as carbon fiber composites and aluminum alloys in their Prime rocket significantly enhances fuel efficiency and overall performance. These innovations underscore Orbex's commitment to advancing aerospace engineering and improving the efficacy of their launch services in the competitive space industry.

Strategic Location: The establishment of Space Hub Sutherland, the UK's inaugural vertical satellite launch spaceport, grants this organization a significant strategic advantage. This infrastructure enables company to offer distinctive launch trajectories, particularly advantageous for missions requiring polar and sun-synchronous orbits. Company's operational base at Space Hub Sutherland enhances their capabilities in the European space sector, reinforcing their position as a leading provider of tailored satellite launch services.

Supportive Ecosystem: This company benefits significantly from robust government and institutional support, notably from entities such as the UK Space Agency and the European Space Agency. This backing not only includes crucial funding but also lends credibility and essential support to Orbex’s ambitious initiatives in the space sector. Being a European company further allows this organization to capitalize on regional support mechanisms and closer proximity to European customers, strategically positioning itself to navigate and thrive within the dynamic landscape of the European space industry ecosystem.

Sustainability and Impact

Environmental Impact

Orbex Space emphasizes its commitment to sustainability and minimizing environmental impact through several key initiatives and technologies. Here are the specific impacts on carbon emissions and sustainability:

Bio-Propane Fuel: The company uses bio-propane as the primary fuel for its Prime rocket. Bio-propane is sourced from renewable feedstocks, making it a carbon-neutral fuel. The use of bio-propane significantly reduces greenhouse gas emissions compared to traditional rocket fuels derived from fossil fuels. This aligns with company`s goal to provide environmentally friendly launch solutions without compromising performance or reliability.

Reusable Rocket Components: The Prime rocket incorporates reusable components, particularly the first stage. Reusability reduces the overall material consumption and waste associated with rocket launches. By refurbishing and reusing rocket stages, the organization minimizes environmental impact by lowering manufacturing demands and decreasing the volume of space debris generated during launch operations.

Lightweight Materials and Efficient Design: Company employs advanced lightweight materials such as carbon fiber composites and aluminum alloys in the construction of its rockets. These materials offer high strength-to-weight ratios, enhancing fuel efficiency and reducing the environmental footprint per launch. The efficient design of the Prime rocket further contributes to minimizing resource consumption and optimizing performance.

Space Hub Sutherland and Sustainable Operations: Orbex's operations at Space Hub Sutherland in Scotland are designed with sustainability in mind. The spaceport infrastructure incorporates eco-friendly practices and measures to minimize environmental impact. This includes sustainable construction methods, waste management protocols, and efforts to protect local ecosystems and wildlife habitats.

Future Goals

Orbex outlines several key future goals to solidify its position in the space launch industry. Firstly, the company aims to transition from development to regular commercial operations of its Prime rocket, establishing itself as a trusted provider of small satellite launch services worldwide. They plan to advance technological innovation by expanding 3D printing techniques for enhanced manufacturing efficiency and improving propulsion systems, including further development of bio-propane fuel technologies for reduced environmental impact. Company is committed to sustainability leadership, continuing to use bio-propane fuel and reusable rocket components to minimize carbon emissions and waste at Space Hub Sutherland, the UK’s first vertical satellite launch spaceport. They seek market expansion through securing additional commercial contracts globally and forming strategic partnerships with satellite operators and aerospace industry leaders. Ensuring regulatory compliance and maintaining high safety standards in all launch operations remains a top priority for company, focusing on obtaining necessary licenses and certifications for safe and responsible launches.


Maya Belkovska
Written by:
Maya Belkovska
Sustainability Research Analyst at Net Zero Compare
Maya is a Sustainability Research Analyst at Net Zero Compare. She specializes in environmental science and practical compliance with sustainability regulations. Maya provides in-depth analysis and insights to help businesses meet regulatory requirements effectively. Her expertise supports Net Zero Compare’s mission to offer practical solutions in the sustainability sector.