Orbex innovates with low-mass carbon fibre fuel tanks

We build the main structures of the Prime launch vehicle from carbon fibre, which delivers enormous strength with very low mass, a crucial factor when building a microlauncher.

The application of the carbon fibre presents a number of challenges including how the main aeroshell of the launcher holds cryogenic fluids without the introduction of a metal or plastic liner and how to reduce the mass of the carbon fibre tank to maximise the performance of the vehicle.

We have been working on both these challenges since the company was founded, with support from the UK Space Agency, the UK’s National Composite Centre, and the European Commission H2020 programme. And we've developed some very important understanding of how to solve these problems in a very elegant, lightweight manner, which we keep under wraps.

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All this work has been possible as a result of investing heavily in the tools and machinery needed to develop our carbon fibre components completely in-house. Today we have all the tooling and machines required to build the main fuel tanks, inter-stages, payload / avionics platforms and nosecones inside the company.

In addition, we have invested in quality control and inspection: all of our facilities are in cleanroom conditions, with climate controlled environments, and we have widely deployed state-of-the art metrology and non-destructive inspection equipment. This includes simple things that ensure exceptional tolerances, such as an enormous slab of black granite weighing around 10 tonnes - a surface plate used as a datum for precision metrology.

But most importantly we have a team of skilled engineers and technicians designing and building our structures, with backgrounds from top-flight motorsport, supercar production, high performance satellite manufacture and airframe development.

Their skills, combined with a complete end-to-end production capability and some innovative R&D has given Orbex the ability to construct fully-finished main stage fuel tanks in very short timescales.