Edinburgh-based aerospace startup Skyrora announced yesterday that it had begun a series of full tests of its updated 3D-printed 70kN engine.
The new design features an improved engine cooling chamber and can be built approximately 66% faster at a cost savings of 20%. It aims to bring the company closer to commercial orbital launch later this year from the SaxaVord Spaceport being developed at Lamba Ness in Unst, Shetland.
Skyrora says the tests will evaluate various parameters, such as life cycle and full operational envelope testing, while the engine is running for 250 seconds — at the same time it will have to run to reach the track.
The engine is printed on Skyrora’s Skyprint 2 — the largest hybrid printer of its kind in Europe — and fully developed by the internal capabilities of the company. Skyrora, which one has incurred so far £32.5m (€38m), it also hopes to offer its Skyprint 2 to third parties, increasing its commercial offering within the emerging private space market.
Skyrora XL is preparing for launch
Once qualified through a partnership with the National Manufacturing Institute of Scotland (NMIS), the new engine will act as a critical part of Skyrora’s XL 23-meter orbital vehicle.
The Skyrora XL is a three-stage light-class rocket intended to launch payloads in Sun-Synchronous Orbit (SSO) between a range of 500 km and 1,000 km altitude. The 70 kN motor currently being tested is intended for the first or the “boost” phase.
The first stage engines operate for a period of time and then shut down once they have used up their propellant. They are then usually jettisoned to reduce the rocket’s weight and drag, although some, such as the SpaceX Falcon 9, have first stages that can perform a controlled descent and landing for refurbishment and reuse on subsequent launches.
According to the company, it will be the first commercially qualified engine to use a closed-cycle combustion system that runs on a combination of hydrogen peroxide and kerosene.
Locate value chain
The tests are being conducted at Skyrora’s facilities in Midlothian in Scotland’s east-central Lowlands, bordering the city of Edinburgh, East Lothian and the Scottish Borders.
“With our purpose-built missile production and testing facilities in Scotland, we pride ourselves on being able to localize 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 70 kN motor for commercial use #SkyroraXL! 🚀
produced by our #Skyprint2 printer, the new model can now be produced 50% faster at a lower cost.
— Skyrora (@Skyrora_Ltd) June 19, 2023
Skyrora has received support from the European Space Agency (ESA) and its Boost! Program, and the agency states that it will continue to support the company’s efforts “for the benefit of a competitive space sector in Europe”.
Reversing the trend with rocket launches from British soil?
It’s been a turbulent year for private space launches in the UK over the past year. Skyrora’s first attempt at launching a rocket last October ended when its 11-meter single-stage suborbital Skylark L vehicle crashed into the sea 500 meters from its launch pad on Iceland’s Langanes Peninsula.
However, the launch failure hasn’t proved as detrimental to the company as the failure of Virgin Orbit’s horizontal launch of the LauncherOne tethered under the wing of a converted Boeing 747 named Cosmic Girl. The disappointing end of the mission that departed from Cornwall in January this year led the Virgin Galactic spin-off to go bankrupt and begin selling its assets a few months later.
In general, the number of rocket launches is increasing worldwide. In 2022, there were 40 more launches than the previous year, doubling from five years earlier. Although there were some failures, a record 180 rockets were successfully lifted off Earth. The statistics were dominated by rockets from Elon Musk’s SpaceX and the Chinese government and corporations.