Construction starts on Orbex Scottish launch site

By Jeff Foust,
Publishd by SpaceNews, 9 May 2023

WASHINGTON — Small launch vehicle developer Orbex says that it has started construction on its launch site in northern Scotland, but remains guarded about when it plans to start launching from there.

Orbex announced May 5 that it had started construction of Sutherland Spaceport in northern Scotland. The facility will host launches of Orbex’s Prime launch vehicle that the company is developing in Scotland. It is designed to handle up to 12 launches a year.

Jacobs, the U.S.-based engineering company, is serving as the prime contractor for the construction of the launch site. The company also invested in a Series C round in October 2022 that raised 40.4 million pounds ($51 million) for Orbex.

“We are looking forward to fulfilling our role as prime constructor for the spaceport, including design, procurement and management of the local supply chain, as well as providing operations support and engineering services,” Andy White, vice president of nuclear decommissioning, energy, security and technology at Jacobs, said in a statement.

Notably absent from the announcement, though, was any schedule for completing construction of the launch site or its first launch. The company, though a spokesperson, declined to answer questions over several days about when the launch site would be completed or when the company would conduct its first launch there.

Work on Sutherland Spaceport, previously known as Space Hub Sutherland, is years behind schedule. The U.K. Space Agency selected the site as its preferred location for a vertical launch facility in July 2018, to be used by both Orbex and Lockheed Martin starting in the early 2020s. However, in 2020 Lockheed announced that it would instead conduct a “U.K. Pathfinder” launch, using a vehicle provided by American startup ABL Space Systems, from SaxaVord Spaceport in the Shetland Islands, leaving Orbex as the sole user of the Sutherland site.

Construction of the Sutherland Spaceport was also slowed by years of work needed to get environmental and other regulatory approvals, including legal challenges. However, in November 2022 Orbex said had secured the agreements, including a lease from Scottish development agency Highlands and Islands Enterprise, needed to build the launch site. Chris Larmour, chief executive of Orbex, said then that construction would start “imminently” and be finished some time in 2023.

Orbex did not disclose why there was a six-month gap between signing the agreements and the start of construction. Larmour unexpectedly resigned from the company April 14, saying he felt that he had taken Orbex as far as he could “and it’s time now to step away and let others lead Orbex to the next level.” Kristian von Bengtson, Orbex’s chief development officer, has been serving as interim chief executive since Larmour’s resignation.

The company has provided few updates on the development of Prime since it unveiled a full-scale prototype of the small launch vehicle nearly a year ago. The company said then that the prototype would be used for integrated testing, including countdown dress rehearsals, ahead of a first launch then scheduled for as soon as late 2022.

The spaceport construction announcement provided no news on the status of that testing or a date for a first launch. “In preparation for the first launch, Orbex is performing a wide variety of integration tests, as well as testing launch procedures including rollout, strongback deployment and fueling procedures,” it said in the statement, similar what the company had stated a year ago.

Orbex did announce that it had secured an additional 3 million pounds from the U.K.’s Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to support spaceport development. The funding is part of the authority’s efforts to mitigate the economic impacts of the closure of a nuclear power station in the region.

That funding is in addition to 9 million pounds from Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Scottish government and 2.55 million pounds the U.K. Space Agency awarded the project in 2018. Neither Orbex nor the other organizations have disclosed the total cost of the spaceport project, although Larmour said in November 2022 said the company expected to spend more than 20 million pounds over three years building and operating the spaceport.

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