A ‘self-eating’ rocket engine which could place small satellites in orbit more easily and more affordably is under development at universities in Scotland and Ukraine.
Engineers from the University of Glasgow and Oles Honchar Dnipro National University in Ukraine discuss how they have built, fired, and for the first time throttled up and down an ‘autophage’ engine which could change how small satellites are sent into space.
Today, most rockets use tanks to store their propellant as they climb, and the weight of the tanks is usually many times greater than the weight of the useful payload. This reduces the efficiency of the launch vehicle, and also contributes to the problem of space debris.
However, a launch vehicle powered by an autophage engine would consume its own structure during ascent, so more cargo capacity could be freed-up and less debris would enter orbit.
Journal of Spacecraft and Rockets- Autophage Engines: Toward a Throttleable Solid Motor
Rockets have about 1-5% of their mass as payload. Getting rid of the fuel tank structure completely can enable more payload and less inert mass.
The autophage engine consumes a propellant rod which has solid fuel on the outside and oxidizer on the inside. The solid fuel is a strong plastic, such as polyethylene, so the rod is effectively a pipe full of powdered oxidizer. By driving the rod into a hot engine, the fuel and oxidizer can be vaporized into gases that flow into the combustion chamber. This produces thrust, as well as the heat required to vaporize the next section of propellant.
Simply by varying the speed at which the rod is driven into the engine, the researchers have shown that the engine can be throttled – a rare capability in a solid motor. Currently, the team have sustained rocket operations for 60 seconds at a time in their lab tests.
“A rocket powered by an autophage engine would be different. The propellant rod itself would make up the body of the rocket, and as the vehicle climbed the engine would work its way up, consuming the body from base to tip.
“That would mean that the rocket structure would actually be consumed as fuel, so we wouldn’t face the same problems of excessive structural mass. We could size the launch vehicles to match our small satellites, and offer more rapid and more targeted access to space.
“While we’re still at an early stage of development, we have an effective engine testbed in the laboratory in Dnipro, and we are working with our colleagues there to improve it still further. The next step is to secure further funding to investigate how the engine could be incorporated into a launch vehicle.
This paper describes the instrumented test firing of a rocket that seeks to combine the throttleability of a liquid-fueled engine with the simplicity of a solid motor. The concept is that a differentiated fuel and oxidizer rod is forced into a vaporization unit where its constituents transition into separate propellant gases, which are then mixed in a combustion chamber. The vaporization unit is heated by the combustion, and the throttle setting is adjusted by changing the force used to drive the solid propellant rod into the vaporizer, which naturally influences the propellant feed rate. In experiments using a solid propellant rod consisting of polypropylene fuel and a 1∶1.5 mixture of NH4ClO4 and NH4NO3 oxidizer, operations have been sustained for around 60 s. During testing, using propellant feed forces of between 250 and 900 N, propellant feed rates of between 100 and 300 mm/min have been achieved, which are in turn correlated to chamber pressures of between approximately 300 and 700 kPa. These correlated cycles of control input (the feed force), throttle response (the propellant feed rate), and implied thrust (the chamber pressure) demonstrate, for the first time, a simple solid rocket that can be throttled in real time.
Read More: https://arc.aiaa.org/doi/abs/10.2514/1.A34153?journalCode=jsr
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