The space company, which is expected to be the primary user of Space Hub Sutherland, is said to be using a 3D printer to accelerate the production of rocket components.
Orbex, which has a missile design and manufacturing facility in Forres and test facilities in Denmark, is developing a 19-meter-long missile called Prime.
The missiles will be used to launch commercial satellites into polar orbits around Earth from the Sutherland spaceport, which has a building permit but has yet to be built on the A’Mhoine peninsula near Tongue.
Orbex announced this week that it has contracted Additive Manufacturing Customized Machines (AMCM) to build an industrial 3D printer that will be the largest in Europe and weigh more than 12 tons.
AMCM managing director Martin Bullemer (left) and Orbex managing director Chris Larmour.
After a number of successful attempts in which various large-scale missile components were printed over several months, a multi-million dollar contract was signed with AMCM.
Orbex said the 3D printer would enable it to print more than 35 large main stage rocket engines and turbo-pump systems annually.
The pressure system makes rocket parts from a special mix of metals like titanium and aluminum to create a lightweight system that can withstand the extreme temperature and pressure conditions of space travel.
Rocket engines are printed in one piece to eliminate the weaknesses that can arise from joining and welding.
Prime runs on bio-propane, a clean-burning, renewable fuel that reduces CO2 emissions by 90 percent compared to kerosene-based fuels.
The Prime missile is designed to be reusable and incorporates a novel recovery and reusability system. It was also designed not to leave debris in orbit around the earth.
Chris Larmour, Orbex CEO, said, “While our rocket engines and other critical systems are pretty mature after years of testing, having a large-scale in-house 3D printing system will give us far greater speed and flexibility as we ramp up production.”
AMCM Managing Director Marin Bullemer said: “To be a leader in the European market, Orbex needs the production reliability and speed that a large 3D printing system can offer.
“And while this is an important purchase, it will provide Orbex with significant cost control in the years to come.”
Orbex is now financed by two UK venture capita funds, BGF and Octopus Ventures.