Propulsion and Energy

Commercial Crew, engine tests mark an active year

The Liquid Propulsion Technical Committee works to advance reaction propulsion engines employing liquid or gaseous propellants.

Significant progress was made this year in NASA’s Commercial Crew program. In March, SpaceX launched to the International Space Station an uncrewed Dragon capsule on a Falcon 9 rocket and then recovered the rocket. The Falcon 9 first stage that will launch the first crewed mission completed static hot-fire acceptance testing in April. In other Commercial Crew activities, Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner completed key propulsion system mission static testing in May, simulating on-orbit maneuvering and high-and-low altitude abort. Blue Origin flew the New Shepard suborbital vehicle in May in preparation for its first human flight. In May, Blue Origin unveiled its BE-7, a highly efficient, deep-throttling engine with restart capability that can power in-space systems.

In other commercial activities, United Launch Alliance’s next-generation launcher, Vulcan Centaur, powered by BE-4 engines in the first stage and RL-10 engines in the upper stage, completed its final design review in May. In January, Blue Origin initiated the process to build the BE-4 engines that will also be used to power its New Glenn rocket. In August, Sierra Nevada Corp. announced it would use the Vulcan for its Dream Chaser spacecraft, which completed its final design review in December 2018.

In August, NASA’s Space Launch System core stage pathfinder was fit-checked in the B2 test stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi in preparation for installation and hot-fire testing of the SLS Exploration Mission-1 core stage in May 2020. In February, NASA and Aerojet Rocketdyne resumed hot-fire testing of the RS-25 engines at Stennis. Aerojet Rocketdyne also delivered eight 490 newtons (110 pounds) of thrust R-4D auxiliary engines to be used on the European Service Module supporting the Orion spacecraft for the Artemis-2 mission.

In Europe, Ariane Group qualified its cryogenic propulsion systems for the Ariane 6; the upper stage Vinci engine passed its final qualification review in June, and the lower stage Vulcain 2.1 engine completed qualification testing in July, accumulating a total operation burn time of 13,800 seconds. Prometheus, a European Space Agency future launcher preparatory development effort to create a reusable LOX/methane engine, completed its subsystem’s manufacturing readiness reviews in 2019, and two demonstrator engines are planned for hot-fire testing in 2020. JAXA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, continued the development of the first-stage LE-9 engine and the second-stage LE-5B3 engine for its first H3 flight in 2020. The LE-9 engine completed engineering model hot-fire testing in October and was to start qualification testing in December at Tanegashima Space Center. Testing of the Battleship H3 first stage (two LE-9s), initiated in December 2018, was to finish in December at the Tashiro Test Complex. The LE-5B3 finished qualification testing in February at the Kakuda Space Center and Tashiro.

In small thruster news, in January, Aerojet Rocketdyne’s monopropellant hydrazine propulsion system powered the New Horizons spacecraft on the most distant solar system flyby as it passed within 3,500 kilometers of Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule, 3½ years after its Pluto flyby. In June, as part of a joint effort among Aerojet Rocketdyne, Ball Aerospace, NASA and the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, the Green Propellant Infusion Mission was launched. It’s a 13-month demonstration of the AFRL’s revolutionary “green” propellant, AF-M315E.

In additive manufacturing activities, a full-scale, 3D-printed high-pressure liquid oxygen/kerosene rocket engine combustion chamber incorporating additive copper alloy GRCop-84 completed testing in February at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama for Virgin Orbit, delivering 8,900 newtons (2,000 pounds) of thrust in 24 60-second test firings. In April, Aerojet Rocketdyne also completed initial testing of its next-generation RL10C-X engine that uses a 3D-printed injector and thrust chamber.

In April, the University of Southern California’s Rocket Propulsion Laboratory designed, built and launched a rocket that passed the Karman line, believed to be a first for a student team.

Contributors: Colin Cowles, Steven Baggette, Christoph Kirchberger, Scott Miller, Koichi Okita, Timothee Pourpoint, Dieter Preclik and Chandrashekhar Sonwane

Commercial Crew, engine tests mark an active year