UK launch startup Orbex closes fresh funding in push to first orbital launch next year

The United Kingdom is known for many things, but rocket launches are not one of them. Spaceflight startup Orbex is part of a slew of U.K.-based companies hoping to change that by bringing vertical launch to U.K. soil for the first time. Orbex is aiming to conduct its first orbital rocket launch as early as next year, and today the company announced it closed £40.4 million ($46.1 million) in funding to power its final push there.

Orbex is developing a 19-meter (62 foot), two-stage microlauncher called Prime. The company rolled out its first full-scale prototype of the orbital rocket back in May, calling it the “first of a new generation” of launch vehicles capable of carrying very small satellites to space. Once operational, Prime will have a payload capacity of 180 kilograms to low Earth orbit.

The rocket is powered by seven engines, six on the first stage and a single engine on the second stage, all fueled with a renewable bio-propane called Calor’s Futuria Liquid Gas. Orbex says this will reduce the carbon emissions of launch by up to 96% compared to rockets of a similar size. The Scotland-based company is currently in the midst of a testing campaign in advance of its first launch in 2023, which will carry an experimental payload from Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd.

The company said in a statement that this new Series C funding will enable it to scale its resources and support future endeavors. The round was led by a new investor, the Scottish National Investment Bank, and includes participation from existing investors BGF, Heartcore Capital, High-Tech Gründerfonds and Octopus Ventures. Other new investors include Jacobs, the Danish Green Future Fund, Swiss VC firm Verge Ventures, and British entrepreneurs Phillip and James Chambers.

The new lead investor, Scottish National Investment Bank, is particularly notable as the latest sign that major government institutions in the U.K. view the space sector as a major source of economic growth. Earlier this year, the government released a plan to invest £1.4 billion ($1.5 billion) in military satellites and other space technologies for the defense sector over the next decade. That and other funding announcements are part of a sweeping National Space Strategy aimed at “leveling up” the country’s space economy.

Prominent ministers from the Scottish and U.K. parliaments applauded the funding, with the U.K. Science Minister Nusrat Ghani calling it a “vote of confidence” in the country’s “ambitious plans to make the U.K. one of the most innovative and attractive space economies in the world, supporting long-term economic growth.”

Orbex was one of two companies selected by the U.K. government in 2018 to perform launches at a new facility, the Space Hub Sutherland Spaceport on the north coast of Scotland. It will be the first spaceport for vertical launch in the U.K. Orbex applied for its license to launch with U.K. regulators in February and recently announced it is increasing its headcount by 50 in the final countdown to launch.