Propulsion and Energy

Progress achieved on liquid propulsion systems for Space Launch System


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

NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi completed refurbishment of the B2 Test Stand in preparation for Space Launch System core stage testing planned for 2018. Credit: NASA

In 2017, significant progress was made in preparing the liquid propulsion systems of NASA’s Space Launch System for Exploration Mission 1. In October, NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, along with Aerojet Rocketdyne — completed hot-fire tests of space shuttle heritage RS-25 flight units modified for SLS operations, demonstrating the new-design engine control units and full duration mission profiles. In addition, Aerojet Rocketdyne began RL10 integration activities for the SLS Block-1B vehicle exploration upper stage.

Shuttle-heritage Orbital Maneuvering System engines were acceptance tested at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas and White Sands Test Facility in New Mexico and delivered along with Aerojet Rocketdyne’s R-4D-11-derived auxiliary engines to the European Space Agency and Airbus in Bremen, Germany, for integration into the Orion service module.

In commercial launch and crew systems activities, SpaceX achieved a notable milestone in rocket reusability when its Falcon 9 rocket launched a geosynchronous communications satellite in March from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Following stage separation, the first stage returned to Earth for a second time, landing on a drone ship in the Atlantic Ocean. The first stage had previously flown in April 2016.

In April 2017 in Redmond, Washington, Aerojet Rocketdyne completed qualification testing of an MR-104J 440 newton monopropellant hydrazine thruster for the Boeing CST-100 Starliner crew module propulsion system.

In Europe, Ariane Group continued development of the propulsion systems for Ariane 6, with the upper stage Vinci and lower stage Vulcain 2.1 engines undergoing qualification testing in March and October, respectively. Also, Prometheus, a low-cost, throttleable methane engine, matured jointly by the Ariane Group and France’s CNES, transitioned into an ESA development program in June.

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency continued maturation of the next Japanese flagship launch system, the H3. The first test campaign of the LE-9 first stage oxygen/hydrogen expander bleed cycle engine was completed in July at the Tanegashima Space Center test stand, demonstrating engine operations, including start and shutdown transients.

NASA’s Satellite Servicing Projects Division conducted full-scale water tests of the robotic propellant transfer subsystem for the upcoming Restore-L mission in July. NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate completed plume characterization tests of Busek’s 5 N AF-M315E green monopropellant thruster in June and testing of Aerojet Rocketdyne’s heavyweight 1 N thruster at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Ohio.

In facility news, refurbishment of Stennis’ B2 test stand for the SLS core stage testing was completed in September. In March, Glenn’s In-Space Propulsion Facility at Plum Brook Station in Sandusky, Ohio, completed tests at simulated altitude and thermal conditions of Johnson’s Integrated Cryogenic Propulsion Test Article.

A new facility comprising five reinforced test cells at Purdue University’s Zucrow Laboratory in West Lafayette, Indiana, was dedicated in September. This facility will facilitate the application of advanced laser diagnostic techniques to combustion zone measurements for rocket and air breathing systems operating at realistic pressures and heat release rates. Its laser laboratory will house numerous diode-pumped solid state laser systems, burst mode lasers and ultrafast laser systems for high-repetition-rate imaging measurements.

Progress achieved on liquid propulsion systems for Space Launch System