New Rocket Technology: Engines That Explode

    Some say the 1960s was the golden age of the space race. New rocket technology was everywhere. You need only go to your search engine of choice and type in “rocket age” and you’ll be bombarded with everything from interior décor from the 1960s to dramatic posters of rockets poised on launchpads. And the age was undoubtedly one of wonder. The USSR and the United States funneled the wealth of nations into escaping the crushing hand of gravity. First Sputnik, then Gagarin, then the Apollo missions, Saturn V rockets, and lunar landings and Skylab. Like I said, some say this was the golden age of space. I can’t help but ask. If that was the golden age, then what age are we in now?

    We Live In The Platinum Age of Space

    Private companies are now the whales, some of them commanding more annual profits than the GDP of nations. And they are pouring that capital into bringing about space access our grandparents could only dream of. Private space launch companies have revolutionized the industry. SpaceX is the loudest and most successful (for now), but Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic aren’t far behind. But there’s a new revolutionary development in engine technology that promises to upend the industry once again. Imagine reaching orbit as easily as boarding a plane.

    Explosions on Purpose: The RDE

    RDE stands for rotating detonation engine. Instead of a continuously burning solid or liquid-fueled rocket, the RDE uses a controlled, spinning explosion to generate supersonic gas, and therefore thrust. This technology has two main advantages over current rocket principles.

    The first is efficiency. By keeping only a portion of the combustion chamber in use, an equivalent thrust generation results in far less fuel consumption. Efficiency is one of the holy grails of rocketry; to lift a single ton of mass into orbit, it takes twenty to fifty tons of fuel with legacy technology. The cost of launch vehicles has plummeted with the advent of reusable rocketry as the industry standard, but a significant jump in fuel efficiency would reduce launch costs even further. Imagine applying this engine technology to a reusable rocket. Suddenly, resupplying a base on Mars or Luna becomes not just feasible, but affordable.

    Consumables and people go up, resources and people come down. A thriving lifecycle of launch and growth. Add into this mix the fact that more efficiency means less environmental impact, and sustainable rocket technology looks more and more realistic.

    The second major advantage to this new rocket technology lies in its potential application to hybrid vehicles. Rockets are a reliable way to get to space, and rocket-powered planes are already testing the edges of possibility. Virgin Galactic operates a rocket-propelled plane that launches from a carrier craft to the edge of space. But to make commercial space flight accessible and reliable, RDE engines might bridge the engineering gap that has made hybrid space planes only a dream. Imagine if you could board a single craft as easily as stepping onto today’s airliners, and dock with a space station a few hours later. Or land on the other side of the world in an hour.

    The Future of New Rocket Technology

    RDE engines are nearing the application phase of development. Researchers from NASA to the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Association (JAXA), and most recently the University of Alabama in Huntsville, AL, have had promising results. JAXA has already successfully launched a sounding rocket powered by a second-stage RDE engine.

    The combination of efficiency and thrust means RDE engines could be swapped for existing engine systems, exponentially increasing the efficiency and capability of aircraft. This technology may even enable trans-atmospheric craft, space planes traveling across the globe in minutes. A vehicle that can take off like an airplane from Earth and land on Mars might finally make the idea of a sustainable colony on the Red Planet possible.

    Will the future of aerospace propulsion lie in rotating detonation engines? With funding from major companies as well as governments globally, this branch of aerospace has a high potential for both future growth as an industry as well as revolutionizing the economics of space launch.

    Feature Image Credit Popular Science Magazine


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