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Scientists successfully tested a rocket engine that eats itself for fuel

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Posted May 29, 2018

Lifting even small satellites to Earth‘s orbit is very expensive task. And how could it not be when a lot of work goes into making a rocket that disintegrates on its first and only mission? A lot of expensive material gets wasted. One solution is reusable rockets, but scientists are also looking into the opposite direction – ‘self-eating’ rocket engines.

Autophage rocket engines would reduce space debris and make rockets cheaper. Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center via Wikimedia

Rockets have to be light. Every kilogram counts when you are trying to overcome Earth’s gravity. Currently used rockets have to bring a lot of rocket fuel, stored in expensive and heavy tanks. Once they are empty, rockets shed them to become lighter at later stages. Weight reduction could be achieved by making the rocked its own rocket fuel. Engineers from the University of Glasgow and Oles Honchar Dnipro National University in Ukraine developed and tested autophage rocket engine, which could transform the way we make and send rockets into space. This could be especially useful for launching small satellites.

Image credit: University of Glasgow

Autophage engine uses a rod of solid fuel. The outside of it would be some sort of strong plastic and the inside would have powdered oxidiser. Essentially it would be a giant polyethylene pipe with some oxidiser inside. It would be pushed into the engine, where it would be vaporised by an extreme heat. These gases would go into the combustion chamber, where thrust would be produced along some more heat for the next section of the fuel rod. The autophage rocket would simply consume itself on its mission, which would reduce the weight and the problem of space debris. Scientists showed that this kind of rocket engine can also be throttled by managing the pace at which the solid fuel rod is pushed into the engine. They maintained rocket operations for 60 seconds in laboratory setting.

Tiny satellites are more important than you think. They provide smaller space agencies with an opportunity to take a step into low Earth orbit without spending too much money. Small satellites also interest people a lot, allowing enthusiasts to contribute to creating little pieces of space technology. Dr Patrick Harkness, one of the authors of the study, said: “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”.

People are trying to make space exploration a little bit cheaper. It is not an easy task, but it is necessary. Reusable rockets, autophage engines and even different kinds of technology able to lift satellites into low orbit are on the rise and we can’t wait to see what kind of discoveries will be encouraged by this.

Source: University of Glasgow

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