Skyrora opens the UK’s largest rocket engine testing facility

Posted on 15 March, 2022 by Advance 

UK rocket company Skyrora hits another significant milestone as it scales up its operations in preparation for an orbital launch, with the opening of a new rocket engine testing facility in Scotland.

Image courtesy Skyrora

Located in Midlothian, the site is a significant contribution to Scotland’s space infrastructure, adding to Skyrora’s fast-growing portfolio of development, manufacturing and testing facilities across the country.

The state of the art facility, which is the largest of its kind in the UK - is a national first for space sector advancement and a huge leap towards establishing launch as a final sector in the space ecosystem. Given the site’s status and unique location, it provides Skyrora with a number of competitive advantages, especially given its proximity to the company’s other facilities.

From an environmental and sustainability perspective, having a local test facility means a lower carbon footprint compared to having to transport engines and equipment to third-party facilities. The Midlothian site harnesses its natural surroundings and uses rainfall from the Scottish Lowlands as part of the cooling systems of the test stand. The stand itself was designed, manufactured and commissioned in less than eight months, making it one of the world’s fastest stands to be built.

The site allows Skyrora to concentrate its launch development operations for the purpose of conducting acceptance tests for engines on its orbital Skyrora XL vehicle, as it aims to become the first British company to complete an orbital launch from UK soil.

After three separate planning applications, the Midlothian facility was commissioned and brought into service within just six months. Aside from extraordinary engineering, the site was made possible in part by a grant awarded in 2021 by the European Space Agency (ESA) as part of its mission to foster new commercial space transportation services.

The extensive Midlothian site, occupying an area of over 120,000 sq ft (just over two football fields), will serve a team of up to 20 engineers once the testing site is running at full capacity. So far, the site has already seen 15 engine tests completed, with regular weekly tests being conducted. Skyrora’s 70kN bi-propellant engine, which emits half the carbon emissions of engines using liquid oxygen and kerosene, is currently deep into verification testing at the new facility. Nine of these engines, fuelled by Skyrora’s non-cryogenic propellant, a more stable fuel that does not need constant cooling, will power the 23-metre Skyrora XL rocket on its launch from the UK.

Skyrora’s new Midlothian site evokes the UK’s history in space-related technology development, in particular the Black Arrow rocket tests that took place at the Highdown testing site near the Needles New Battery. Black Arrow’s final flight in 1971 - from Australian soil - was the first and only successful orbital launch to be conducted by the UK. The capability to launch rockets from UK soil is now one of the last remaining pieces of the puzzle.  

Skyrora's Head of Engineering, Dr Jack James Marlow, said: “The new purpose-built Midlothian site allows us to take direct charge of the development cycle in-house. By reducing our reliance on third parties and cultivating specialist knowledge within the company, the Midlothian location gives us much closer control of the quality and rapid development of Skyrora XL as we prepare for its first demo launch. The site also allows us to optimise our manufacturing processes, and to scale up launch vehicle production over the long term. This milestone was only made possible due to the dedication and talent of the Test Site Team.”

With the launch of its three-stage orbital vehicle - Skyrora XL - scheduled for later this year as the company bids to be the first British firm to launch a rocket from UK soil, Skyrora’s new facility comes at a pivotal time.

Skyrora founder and CEO Volodymyr Levykin said: “Developing sovereign launch capability is of the utmost importance for the UK’s ability to claim a leadership position in the emerging new global space economy - something that has only become more clear as we’ve seen the role played by space services in intelligence-gathering and security and defence during the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
"The opening of our Midlothian site means that Britain is another step closer to unlocking its launch capacity and potential to play a bigger role in the space economy. We would usually have the entire Skyrora family here to celebrate such an achievement, but unfortunately, our Ukrainian colleagues can’t be with us. Without them, this feat of engineering wouldn’t have been possible and I’m sure that we’ll be able to celebrate with them again very soon.

“An infrastructural triumph for the UK space sector, this facility promotes STEM job creation that’s central to the UK government’s Levelling Up agenda, unlocking the revolutionary potential of the new space economy in the UK in the process. We’re proud to have led the way on this.”

After his recent visit to the new test site, Chief Officer, Midlothian Council, Derek Oliver said: “Space is an emerging industry that has the potential to be a key driver of innovation and growth in local economies. Witnessing the progress of rocket engine testing at Skyrora’s new site in Midlothian provides an exciting window into the type of high-skill research and development that can be achieved here in Scotland.

"The construction of the engine testing site is a crucial step in the UK launch value chain and is an exciting step towards the first rocket launch from these shores.”

The Midlothian test site covers 120,000sqft over a retired quarry, disused for over 50 years. This test site contains three independent test stands, contained within a minimised footprint.

The 70kN Test site has been designed over and above the specifications required for testing of the company’s flagship 70kN Engine and so the system outperforms the requirements needed, promising easy development and upgrade for future engines up to 100kN

Accommodating up to 20 staff, in both high-skilled and low-skilled positions, to generate new employment opportunities in the local area and for Scotland, the test site is fully integrated and can accommodate not only engine testing but features offices, meeting rooms, amenities, a command centre and guest entertainment facilities.

Each container within the site is completely standardised; the workshop facilities developed at the site are the same style that will be used in launches. This is especially important in increasing team competence with systems and accelerating Skyrora’s path to flight.

The test site was fully commissioned in accordance with all UK Rules and Regulations – the largest of its kind in the UK. The sound suppression system is for rocket engine testing and was designed in-houseand the system can significantly reduce the sound of the engine, minimising its travel across the environment.

The Test Stand’s compact and sustainable design has water recycling as a core feature of the site, with rainfall from the Scottish lowlands recycled into the cooling systems of the stand. Designed with longevity in mind, the test site provides full testing capability for all engines for at least the next five years, before review and upgrade to continue further tests.