NASA Designing Revolutionary Propulsion for Deep Space Missions

Rotary Detonation Rocket Engine, or RDRE Hot Fire Test at Marshall Space Flight Center. Credit: NASA

like[{” attribute=””>NASA takes its first steps toward establishing a long-term presence on the Moon’s surface, a team of propulsion development engineers at NASA have developed and tested NASA’s first full-scale rotating detonation rocket engine, or RDRE, an advanced rocket engine design that could significantly change how future propulsion systems are built.

The RDRE differs from a traditional rocket engine by generating thrust using a supersonic combustion phenomenon known as a detonation. This design produces more power while using less fuel than today’s propulsion systems and has the potential to power both human landers and interplanetary vehicles to deep space destinations, such as the Moon and Mars.

engineers in NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and principal collaborator IN Space LLC, located in West Lafayette, Indiana, confirm data from RDRE hot fire tests conducted in 2022 at the Eastern Marshall Test Area. The engine was fired over a dozen times, totaling nearly 10 minutes in duration.

RDRE achieved its primary test goal by demonstrating that its devices — made with new additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, designs and processes — can operate for extended periods while withstanding the extreme heat and pressure environments generated by blasting. Operating at full throttle, the RDRE produced more than 4,000 pounds of thrust for about a minute at an average chamber pressure of 622 psi, the highest pressure rating ever for this design.

Rotating rocket detonation hot fire test engine

Rotary Detonation Rocket Engine, or RDRE Hot Fire Test at Marshall Space Flight Center. Credit: NASA

RDRE includes NASA-developed copper[{” attribute=””>alloy GRCop-42 with the powder bed fusion additive manufacturing process, allowing the engine to operate under extreme conditions for longer durations without overheating.

Additional milestones achieved during the test include the successful performance of both deep throttling and internal ignition. This successful demonstration brings the technology closer to being used with future flight vehicles, enabling NASA and commercial space to move more payload and mass to deep space destinations, an essential component to making space exploration more sustainable. Because of NASA’s recent success with the RDRE, follow-on work is being conducted by NASA engineers to develop a fully reusable 10,000-pound class RDRE to identify performance benefits over traditional liquid rocket engines.

UCF Rotating Detonation Rocket Engine

Thrust propulsion testing and characterization of the University of Central Florida rotating detonation rocket engine is shown in this photo. NASA provided funding for a UCF project focused on rotating detonation rocket engines, which use high-energy explosions to produce more energy with less fuel, improving engine efficiency and cutting down space travel costs and emissions. Credit: UCF

RDRE is managed and funded by the Game Changing Development Program in NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

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