3D-printed rocket engine revs up for orbital launch in Scotland

Edinburgh-based aerospace startup Skyrora announced yesterday that it has started a series of endurance tests of its updated 3D-printed 70kN motor.

The new design features an improved engine cooling chamber and can be built approximately 66% faster with a 20% cost reduction. It is designed to bring the company closer to a commercial orbital launch later this year from the SaxaVord spaceport, which is being developed at Lamba Ness in Unst, Shetland.

According to Skyrora, the tests evaluate various parameters such as life cycle and full operating range testing while the engine is running for 250 seconds At the same time, it has to walk to reach orbit.

The engine was printed on Skyrora’s Skyprint 2 the largest hybrid printer of its kind in Europe and developed entirely through the company’s in-house capabilities. Skyrora, which has raised £32.5million (€38million) so far, hopes to offer its Skyprint 2 to third parties, expanding its commercial offering in the burgeoning private space market.

Skyrora XL prepares for launch

Once qualified through a collaboration with the National Manufacturing Institute of Scotland (NMIS), the new engine will serve as a critical component of Skyrora’s 23-metre XL orbital vehicle.

The Skyrora XL is a light-class, three-stage rocket designed to launch payloads into Sun-Synchronous Orbit (SSO) with a range between 500 km and 1,000 km altitude. The 70 kN motor currently being tested is intended for the first or “boost” stage.

First stage thrusters run for a specified duration and then shut down once they have run out of fuel. They are then typically jettisoned to reduce the rocket’s weight and drag. However, some, like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, have first stages capable of controlled descent and landing for refurbishment and reuse on later launches.

According to the company, it will be the first commercially approved engine to use a staged closed-cycle combustion system fueled by a combination of hydrogen peroxide and kerosene.

Localization of the value chain

Testing will be conducted at Skyrora’s facilities in Midlothian in the east-central Scottish Lowlands, bordering the city of Edinburgh, East Lothian and the Scottish Borders.

“With our purpose built rocket manufacturing and testing facilities in Scotland, we pride ourselves on localizing as much of the launch value chain as possible,” said Volodymyr Levykin, CEO and Founder of Skyrora.

We have officially started testing to qualify the updated design of our 70kN motor for commercial use on #SkyroraXL! 🚀

The new model is made via our #Skyprint2 printer and can now be made 50% faster and cheaper.

Learn more: https://t.co/YlU97QaRNb pic.twitter.com/ngEoOmi6UC

— Skyrora (@Skyrora_Ltd) June 19, 2023

Skyrora has support from the European Space Agency (ESA) and their Boost! receive. program and the agency says it will continue to support the company’s efforts to “benefit a competitive space sector in Europe”.

Reverse the trend towards rocket launches from British soil?

It’s been a turbulent past year for private space launches in the UK. Skyrora’s first attempt to launch a rocket in October last year ended with its 11-metre-long single-stage suborbital spacecraft Skylark L crashing into the sea 500 meters from its launch pad on Iceland’s Langanes Peninsula.

However, the unsuccessful launch did not prove as damaging to the company as Virgin Orbit’s failure of the horizontal launch of the LauncherOne, which was fixed under the wing of a converted Boeing 747 named Cosmic Girl. The disappointing end to the mission, which launched in Cornwall in January this year, led the Virgin Galactic spin-off to file for bankruptcy and begin selling its assets a few months later.

Overall, the number of rocket launches is increasing worldwide. In 2022 there were 40 more launches than in the previous year and twice as many as five years earlier. Although there were some failures, a record-breaking 180 rockets successfully took off from Earth. The statistics were dominated by rockets from Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Chinese governments and companies.

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