Orbex raises $63 million to help fund 1st vertical rocket launch from UK

rocket on a launch pad with trees in behind. the trees are in artificial green and red colors from a nearby lighting source
The Prime small satellite launcher awaiting tests on a launch pad in Scotland. (Image credit: Orbex)

More money is pouring into the race to launch the first vertical rocket from the United Kingdom.

Scotland's Orbex received £40.4 million (roughly $63 million) in a Series C fundraising round as satellite launch activity accelerates rapidly in the region via companies like Virgin Orbit, Lockheed Martin and Astra.

Orbex CEO Chris Larmour stated Tuesday (Oct. 18) that his company has made "significant" strides in getting its environmentally friendly small-satellite launching rocket ready for action after the booster, called Prime, was unveiled to the public in May.

In photos: First look inside Orbex's Scotland rocket factory 

Orbex has already notched numerous milestones including new customers, more manufacturing and "rapid development and testing" of Prime, Larmour said in the statement. "We're delighted to have closed this new funding round led by the Scottish National Investment Bank," he added.

Orbex has said it wants to get its Prime rocket off the ground later this year at Space Hub Sutherland, a new spaceport in northern Scotland that received planning permission in August 2020. 

The 62-foot (19-meter) Prime is just one of a set of rockets competing for the small satellite business in the United Kingdom, however. The race to launch space rockets from the U.K. has attracted a clutch of companies seeking to prove not only business smarts, but environmental sensitivity as they launch in protected coastal areas or near heritage monuments.

Related: The UK really wants commercial spaceports. Will they see rockets fly in 2022?  

An illustration of the planned spaceport in Sutherland, Scotland, that will be used for vertically launched rockets. (Image credit: Perfect Circle PV)

A veteran Scottish rocket startup, Skyrora, plans orbital launches in 2023 from the Shetland Islands' SaxaVord Spaceport, using the 74-foot (22.7 meters) Skyrora XL. Skyrora has sent smaller rockets aloft before, but failed a debut vertical rocket launch to suborbital space earlier this month in Iceland with the 36-foot (11 m) Skylark L. Skyrora sent a shipping container to the Icelandic launch site with all the necessary rocket launch materials to make minimal mark on the coastal landscape, the company said at the time.

Lockheed Martin and its launch partner, ABL Space Systems, had hoped to launch into space from SaxaVord in 2022, but development and regulatory delays forced a slip into next year, according to SpaceNews. ABL has yet to perform a test launch of the RS1 rocket from Kodiak Island in Alaska, which was initially slated for early 2022. 

ABL may be close to that test launch; the usually quiet company announced via Twitter in September that they are finalizing their launch window with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. Last week, ABL released footage of a test fire of their E2 engines for an expected RS1 flight in Mojave, California.

Even Astra, a company based in California, is eyeing SaxaVord with hopes to launch ahead of the competition. The company already sent rockets to space from Kodiak Island and from Cape Canaveral, Florida. SaxaVord would offer even more orbital options for existing clients and launches may happen there as soon as 2023, Astra has said.

Related: Spaceport construction set to begin on UK's northernmost island

SaxaVord Spaceport plans to build three launchpads on Lamba Ness peninsula on Unst in the Shetland Islands. (Image credit: SaxaVord Spaceport)

Horizontal launch capability is also coming to the UK soon. Virgin Orbit, which aims to send satellites into space from a horizontal rocket flying aboard a modified 747 plane known as Cosmic Girl, is readying to launch within weeks from another startup spaceport in Cornwall, on the southernmost tip of British land.

A quieter competitor, Black Arrow Space Technologies, is working on horizontal rocket launches using a repurposed crude bulk carrier near the coast of Wales. It is aiming for a maiden launch in 2023 using a small rocket to launch into low Earth orbit, with plans to heft as much as 5.5 tons (5 metric tons) on a larger launcher sometime down the line.

Outside of the U.K. there are even more European companies racing for orbital business, such as Bavaria's Rocket Factory Augsburg and Munich's Isar Aerospace, both of which have 2023 launches on the roster. Examples of other European competitors include HyImpulse, which is a spinoff from the German Aerospace Center, and Spain's PLD Space for suborbital launches. 

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace