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Space Science

New Rocket Engine Successfully Tested 162

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the flatulence-you-can-get-behind dept.
inetsee writes "XCOR Aerospace announced that their new methane-oxygen rocket engine has been tested successfully. This is reported to be the first successful test of an engine using the combination of methane and oxygen as fuel. The fuel has higher specific impulse than kerosene and oxygen, but until now has been thought to have too much 'technology risk'."
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New Rocket Engine Successfully Tested

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  • Methane? (Score:5, Funny)

    by Dasupalouie (1038538) on Wednesday January 17, 2007 @02:14PM (#17649484)
    So this is why UFO's come to earth and probe our cattle... I guess in the next decade or so you won't see countries being invaded for oil, but farmland being taken over for fuel and a glass of milk.
  • by AKAImBatman (238306) * <akaimbatmanNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Wednesday January 17, 2007 @02:14PM (#17649490) Homepage Journal
    The fuel has higher specific impulse than kerosene and oxygen, but until now has been thought to have too much 'technology risk'

    There hasn't been much use, because rocket design has been on a different track than XCOR. Kerosine engines are primarily used for their high thrust to weight ratios, which help get a rocket off the ground. Once the rocket is in flight, the first stage is usually dropped in favor of a more powerful engine, such as Liquid Hydrogen/Oxygen engines. LHOx has the highest specific impulse of any fuel deployed to date; even more efficient than the methane-oxygen engines they're proposing.

    The problem is that XCOR is working on a different track than NASA and the large rocket manufacturers. They're focusing on winged takeoff and landing, where high thrust to weight ratios aren't as important, and can be sacrificed for greater efficiency. (For comparison, the kerosine F-1 engines on the Saturn V produced 1.5 million lbf compared to the 7,500 lbf targetted by this engine.) So the methane-oxy engine development has less to do with politics, and more to do with the practical matters of meeting the targetted design goals.
    • No (Score:5, Interesting)

      by everphilski (877346) on Wednesday January 17, 2007 @02:21PM (#17649628) Journal
      So the methane-oxy engine development has less to do with politics, and more to do with the practical matters of meeting the targetted design goals.

      No, it has more to do with the subcontract they have with ATK to do research for NASA LINK [xcor.com]. This pays the bills while they play with their winged rocket-plane.

      For comparison, the kerosine F-1 engines on the Saturn V produced 1.5 million lbf compared to the 7,500 lbf targetted by this engine.

      They were also pumping a lot more fuel and oxidizer per second (much larger m_dot). This is a small engine mounted to the back of a trailer. You could (almost) wrap your hands around it. The F-1's chamber is quite a bit bigger.
      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by kfg (145172)
        This is a small engine mounted to the back of a trailer.

        Are they contemplating the Final Solution for trailer trash or something?

        First they came for the trailer trash and I didn't say anything because I wasn't trailer trash.
        Then they came for the phone sanitizers . . .

        On the other hand it's a free ride into space. Maybe I'll get a mullet and rip the sleeves off my t-shirts or something. Take that Ansari.

        KFG
      • Re:No (Score:4, Interesting)

        by AKAImBatman (238306) * <akaimbatmanNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Wednesday January 17, 2007 @02:41PM (#17649948) Homepage Journal
        No, it has more to do with the subcontract they have with ATK to do research for NASA LINK.

        Good catch. But it's still not being developed for a traditional launch system. According to their website, this engine would be used for the lunar -> LEO transfer stage on the CEV. Which again makes the thrust to weight ratio less important, and again non-comparable to kerosine engines. (From what I understand the Apollo Service Module used a hydrazine engine for the transearth injection.)

        They were also pumping a lot more fuel and oxidizer per second (much larger m_dot). This is a small engine mounted to the back of a trailer. You could (almost) wrap your hands around it. The F-1's chamber is quite a bit bigger.

        Agreed. However, I don't have the actual Thrust to Weight ratios for the XCOR engine, so all I can do is point out the differences in their thrust. If you have the actual ratios, feels free to chip in.
        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by everphilski (877346)
          But it's still not being developed for a traditional launch system.

          CEV/Constellation is becoming our "traditional" launch system.

          If you have the actual ratios, feels free to chip in.

          Hehe... no I don't. XCOR is keeping the numbers close to their chest. As they should... the numbers belong to NASA under contract. But you can back out a rough guesstimate since they gave you the thrust.
          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            by AKAImBatman (238306) *

            CEV/Constellation is becoming our "traditional" launch system.

            No, they're the new hotness! *sizzle* :P

            Sorry, when I refer to "traditional launch system", I mean a vertical take off rocket. The CEV program covers a huge number of vehicles and engines. What I'm referring to is that the methane engine is not planned for use as the first stage of a vertical takeoff; which is the area where kerosine is most commonly used.

            Hehe... no I don't. XCOR is keeping the numbers close to their chest. As they should... the

            • Ugh. I'm horrible at making these sorts of guesstimates. Well, Astronautix lists the F-1 as having 94.07:1 Thrust to Weight. (1,740,134 lbf/~18,500lbs) Looking at the engine, it looks like solid stainless steel and either copper or brass. So... how does 100 to 150 lbs sound as a range? Which would give it a thrust to weight ratio of somewhere between 75:1 to 50:1.

              At the moment its a piece of crap (thrust to weight wise) - it is a heat sink design, so there is extra copper around the throat of the engine
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by kfg (145172)
      . . .meeting the targetted design goals.

      Holy Christ, are we still allowed to do that? Why didn't I get the memo?

      Now all we have to do is do something about the design goals and we're set.

      KFG
    • by GooberToo (74388) on Wednesday January 17, 2007 @02:34PM (#17649844)
      For comparison, the kerosine F-1 engines on the Saturn V produced 1.5 million lbf compared to the 7,500 lbf targetted by this engine

      That's misleading. "This engine" is strictly a prototype so they can develop a much larger version. Comparing a production engine with an early, heavy in development prototype simply does not make sense. From the article, "The 7,500 lbf engine is the first of its kind...", and, "Currently, the engine is a workhorse prototype...". I don't see what their target thurst is, but one can assume it's much larger than 7,500lbf.
      • by AKAImBatman (238306) * <akaimbatmanNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Wednesday January 17, 2007 @02:54PM (#17650148) Homepage Journal
        I don't see what their target thurst is, but one can assume it's much larger than 7,500lbf.

        7,5000 lbf is the target for this engine. It builds upon the 50 lbf XR-3M9 [xcor.com] and 10,000 lbf 5M12. As pointed out by another poster [xcor.com], XCOR claims "the new Orion Crew Vehicle main engine design will be an interpolation between these recent designs."

        Additionally, XCOR is advertising their engine developments as a possible base for methane-breathing Jet engines that would work in Mars atmosphere. (A very interesting development, indeed!)

        BTW, if you have the projected thrust to weight ratios, please share them. I hate having to use the thrust values, because it can be (as you said) misleading. Unfortunately, I don't have the values for the XCOR engine. What I can say is that LHOx > methane > kerosine in terms of specific impulse/efficiency. In terms of thrust to weight, the formula is exactly reversed where kerosine > methane > LHOx. There are very few cases where both the thrust to weight and specific impulse are high. (Orion Project and MPD thrusters [wikipedia.org] are the two I'm aware of.) Otherwise, they tend to be inversely proportional.
        • by GooberToo (74388)
          What I read said that the target for THIS engine was 7500 but this was a prototype. They then plan to take the results from this engine to create a newer, more powerful version. I took that to mean, this engine is 7500 while their target engine will have more and that this engine is nothing but a prototype and technology proofing milestone.

          You sound like you're more in tune with following these developments so I many very well be out in left field here.
    • by nasor (690345)
      Perhaps more to the point, liquid methane's specific impulse is only very slighty better than kerosine, but kerosine has a much higher density (allowing you to store more of it in a smaller volume) and doesn't have the hassle of being a cryogenic liquid.
    • by LWATCDR (28044)
      "first stage is usually dropped in favor of a more powerful engine, such as Liquid Hydrogen/Oxygen engines. "
      upper stage engines are usually less powerful than first stage engines.
      An LH/LOX engine will have a higher specific impulse than an RP-1/LOX motor but a lower density impulse.
      That is what methane/LOX more is trying to address. It makes a better first stage than LH and a better upper stage than RP-1.
      It could be a good compromise for a SSTO system.
      • upper stage engines are usually less powerful than first stage engines.

        That was a mistake. It was supposed to say, "more efficient".

        It could be a good compromise for a SSTO system.

        Agreed. The logistics of actually developing an SSTO would be difficult, but as I said in another post, more companies working on space technology can only be a good thing. :)
        • by LWATCDR (28044)
          Notice that I said "usually". I think that in the Titan family the second stage used an engine with close to the same thrust as the first stage. The difference is that the first was a two engine cluster. Might be the same with some of the old Soviet rockets as well.
          • Notice that I said "usually". I think that in the Titan family the second stage used an engine with close to the same thrust as the first stage.

            This is just a difference in power curves. Once you're at Max-Q, there's not much point in maintaining more thrust than necessary to overcome drag losses.

            The older rockets struggled to reach space in comparison, and needed more stages to keep accelerating. As a result, rockets like the Titan family used a large number of stages, most of which are unnecessary in a mo

            • by LWATCDR (28044)
              "As a result, rockets like the Titan family used a large number of stages, most of which are unnecessary in a modern rocket."
              You may want to look that up.
              The Titan I and Titan II each had two stages. Not what I would call a large number.
              The Titan II is what they used to put the Gemini missions into orbit.
              They later expanded the family in the Titan III and IV which used strap on solid boosters and often a third stageand or what they called a transtage.
              In fact the Atlas one of the US's first ICBM and one of i
              • In fact the Atlas one of the US's first ICBM and one of it's first launch vehicles only had a stage and half. It had one set of tanks but dropped two of it's motors.

                Ahem [wikipedia.org]: "The Atlas boosters required extra strengthening in order to handle the increased weight of the Mercury capsules beyond that of the nuclear warheads they were designed to carry. Little Joe was a solid-propellant booster designed specially for the Mercury program."

                In other words, the Atlas had a mostly useless payload capability, and was re

                • by LWATCDR (28044)
                  Little Joe wasn't a strap on booster. It was a launch vehicle used to test the launch abort system on the Mercury.
                  Here is a good link to about the "Little Joe" http://www.astronautix.com/lvs/litlejoe.htm [astronautix.com]
                  The Little Joe is a long time favorite of scale model rocket builders.
                  They never used strap on boosters for Mercury flights. In fact the Shuttle was the first us in the US of large solid boosters in the US.
                  There where plans to us them with the X-20 and MOL but they where never flown.

                  So.
                  1. No they didn't use
  • Mars exploration (Score:5, Interesting)

    by hypermanng (155858) on Wednesday January 17, 2007 @02:15PM (#17649500) Homepage
    By far the most critical aspect of this for me is its practicality for use in Mars exploration or, more to the point, colonization. While it's obviously too soon to colonize anything at a reasonable price (and real colonization will only occur when we can get some prospect of a return commensurate to the colossal investment) but the sooner the requisite technologies enter wide use, the sooner their price starts to drop, the more hospitable the cost/benefit balance sheet begins to look. Little things like this could make ten years worth of difference.
  • by PHAEDRU5 (213667) <instascreed@@@gmail...com> on Wednesday January 17, 2007 @02:15PM (#17649506) Homepage
    ...as in the completely undefined "technology risk".

    (I mean, as in, let me go combine hydrogen with carbon and oxygen, and see what happens......)

    • Like, oh, say ClF5 (chlorine pentafluoride). It's a nice oxidizer: dense, liquid at room temperature (given a bit of pressure), and highly energetic. Of course, there's the issue of it being hypergolic with human flesh (and nearly everything else -- asbestos burns in ClF5), but really, it's got a lot of things going for it. Use it with a little hydrazine (N2H4) for full effect. Of course, hydrazine has its own problems (it becomes explosive under pressure, and is carcinogenic if you live through handlin
  • by bdowd (159289) on Wednesday January 17, 2007 @02:18PM (#17649558) Homepage
    ...and the cow jumped (?) over the moon...
  • Wonderful! (Score:5, Informative)

    by drinkypoo (153816) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Wednesday January 17, 2007 @02:19PM (#17649576) Homepage Journal

    Methane gas is utterly renewable. You can make it from shit [colostate.edu], literally, and without any special equipment [motherearthnews.com]. The only special thing you need is a way to compress it [repp.org] to store it... say 200 psi tops? The only thing I can't find is a small compressor suitable for this purpose on a household scale. You can actually just run your waste into the bottom of a pond along with a steady flow of water, tent it, and capture methane - you bubble it through water to purify it. The compressing is the only issue left...

    Side note: While searching for goodies I found this url [sodalitasart.com] which attempted to root my computer. No idea how successful it was, I'm off to go run defender and spybot.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by kfg (145172)
      Methane gas is utterly renewable. You can make it from shit

      Petroleum is utterly renewable. You can make it from plants.

      KFG
    • by ultramk (470198) <ultramk AT pacbell DOT net> on Wednesday January 17, 2007 @02:51PM (#17650098)
      You know, in the context of this post, your username is truly disgusting.

      M-
      • by drinkypoo (153816)
        You know, in the context of this post, your username is truly disgusting.

        The number of people who have apparently never talked to an alcoholic baby boomer is truly amazing. Lucky bastards. Basically all of them have said at some point in their lives "just one little drinkypoo".

        • by spun (1352)
          Basically all of them have said at some point in their lives "just one little drinkypoo".

          Mom? Is that you?
    • by Chris Burke (6130) on Wednesday January 17, 2007 @03:06PM (#17650328) Homepage
      No Blood for Poop!
    • And just what in bog's name do you want a rocket engine on a farm for?
      • by dpilot (134227)
        You're not limited to rocket engines.

        There are several farms here in Vermont taking care of all of their electrical needs, plus selling some back to the utilities, all on Cow Power. Though now that you mention it, turbines are generally used at large-scale powerplants, for their efficiency. I wonder at what scaling point that becomes true. Perhaps the farm still doesn't need a rocket engine, but it would be better off with a methane-powered jet engine instead of its current I.C. engine.
    • "Methane gas is utterly renewable. You can make it from shit "

      Yes we have all seen the 80s documentary beyond thunderdome.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by ChrisA90278 (905188)
      Compressed natural gas is a common fuel used to power stoves on sailboats and fleet vehicles. You can buy it at the fuel docks at many marinas. Typically you exchange a tank, empty tank for full tank and pay about $20. The tanks look like steel SCUBA tanks and are filled to between 2400 to 3000 PSI. (about 200 BAR if you like metric) It really does need to be compress to 200 Bar or so to make it a usful otherwise the tanks are huge compared to the energy they contain. At 1 bar a small car might use 1 c
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by drinkypoo (153816)
        Well I'm not talking about the compressed/liquid, I'm just talking about compressing it beyond atmospheric for storage and use for cooking, welding, stuff like that. They actually make methane digesters that can be installed under your house and the outputs are processed waste and methane. The processed waste is now less nasty and can be used for fertilizer - humanure (as disgusting as the concept may be) is the most valuable fertilizer around. The methane could then be used for household purposes - it can
        • Have you thought about putting the compressor in a freezer? If the methane ran through a coil of copper tubing, you could make it more dense by cooling it prior to compression. When the compressed methane bottle is brought to room temp, it will be under higher pressure. The colder the freezer, the higher the compression

          \not sure how much pressure could be gained this way, would have to crank the numbers
          • by drinkypoo (153816)
            \not sure how much pressure could be gained this way, would have to crank the numbers

            IANAP(hysicist) but it seems to me that the compressor would still only be able to compress the same mass of air per stroke. Also it's probably going to cost you more energy to cool and then compress it than to just keep compressing it. If you want more pressure, you just use a multiple-stage compressor.

  • by Short Circuit (52384) * <mikemol@gmail.com> on Wednesday January 17, 2007 @02:24PM (#17649684) Homepage Journal

    The fuel has higher specific impulse than kerosene and oxygen, but until now has been thought to have too much 'technology risk'.
    Really, this is sweet. Not necessarily the rocket technology itself, but the fact that the X-Prize has accomplished what it was meant to do: Foster distributed research in space technology.

    Having one organization, with one budget (NASA) works fine when you've got a big enough budget. However, politics and manpower constraints limit the number of avenues you can explore. Like with computers, having a monolithic space technology architecture can lead to a single point of failure.

    What if a component is outlawed, or becomes extraordinarily expensive to produce? You end up with mountains of unusable applied technology.

    This test demonstrates that the practical science behind space flight is getting diversified, and that can only be a good thing for ensuring the future of space flight.
    • by everphilski (877346) on Wednesday January 17, 2007 @02:34PM (#17649852) Journal
      NASA is paying for the research through a contract with ATK. XCOR is a subcontractor.

      See, XCOR can't make money flying their rocket-planes around so they have to have government contracts to foot the bills. It was like this before the X-prize and will remain to be.

      Now the X-prize itself and the X-cup? Yes, cool. But credit where credit is due. This is NASA research, not X-Prize stuff.
      • by dpilot (134227)
        Oops... Then it can't possibly be any good at all.

        After all, NASA -> BAD! Anything but NASA -> good!

        What's sad is, there really seem to be people who think like this. I wonder how many people would change their minds about the project, based just on your post.
  • by dr_db (202135) on Wednesday January 17, 2007 @02:26PM (#17649718)
    Will this be rated in cowpower?

    I can see it now - "Where do you stupid bovines think you're going? The mooooooooooon?"
  • by zappepcs (820751) on Wednesday January 17, 2007 @02:34PM (#17649848) Journal
    If we develop methane engine technology, could it possibly be used to return a space mission from planets with an abundance of frozen methane?
  • Could you mix LOX and liquid methane in the correct proportion in the same fuel/oxidizer tank and eliminate 1/2 of the pumps/plumbing, etc?

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by ClayJar (126217)
      At atmospheric pressure, methane freezes at a temperature about half a kelvin above that at which oxygen boils (about 90.7 kelvins and 90.2 kelvins, respectively, if I've looked things up correctly).

      Obviously, I know nothing about the operational pressure ranges, but one can easily infer that mixed-phase flows would likely result if you tried to use both from a single tank. I wouldn't want to see what that would do to a rocket engine turbopump. (Well, actually, since high-speed cameras are fairly cheap the
    • Could you mix LOX and liquid methane in the correct proportion in the same fuel/oxidizer tank and eliminate 1/2 of the pumps/plumbing, etc?

      Is it me or does that sound _really_ dangerous? :)

      I know, let's put a stupidly large, explosive mix of fuel/oxidiser in a tank under very high pressure and hope nothing ignites it. :)
      • by LWATCDR (28044)
        1. I don't think this would work. I am pretty sure the methane would freeze.
        2. If you could it could be hard to keep them in uniform mixture.
        3. Yes I would call it a bomb.

        In theory I am pretty sure that you could mix NOX and Propane under pressure but that would also be a really bad idea.
    • by Waffle Iron (339739) on Wednesday January 17, 2007 @03:16PM (#17650470)
      Could you mix LOX and liquid methane in the correct proportion in the same fuel/oxidizer tank and eliminate 1/2 of the pumps/plumbing, etc?

      Sure you could do that... if your goal was to simulate the blast effects of a small nuclear explosion.

    • by mortonda (5175)
      Aside from the storage dangers where a spark would create a bomb, you would have to make sure your rocket nozzle spit the stuff out faster than the combustion rate... otherwise the flame will backtrack into the tank, and you end up with a bomb again.

      Of course, if your nozzle could spit things out at that rate, why bother with combustion?
  • Yawn! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Lord Apathy (584315) on Wednesday January 17, 2007 @02:52PM (#17650114)

    Another chemical engine. Been there, done that. Where are all those cool nuclear and ion engines I've been reading/hearing about for the last 30 years? You know the ones that promised us that mars was a couple weeks away and Jupiter was just a couple of months?

    We tried out that ion engine a few years ago. If I remember it worked perfectly. Why haven't we put that in to service. The last probe we launch, pluto express, still used the tried and true brute force approach. It will take it about 20 years to get there. Where if we had strapped a nuclear powered plasma rocked they have been testing for the last 20 years I could already be bitch'n about how dull pluto is.

    Come on guy's you've had the plasma rocket in a bottle for 10 years. Lets take it up, strap it to something, and see what the bitch can do.

    Yes, I know nuclear plasma and ion can't get us off the ground so we'll still need chemical for that, for now. And I know you have to crawl before you can walk, but we've been crawling for 60 years now. Hell, we are still using the same basic technology that the nazi's where lobbing into London.

    Let's get off the can and do something new for once.

    • Re:Yawn! (Score:4, Informative)

      by ookabooka (731013) on Wednesday January 17, 2007 @03:15PM (#17650442)
      Ion engines are very efficient, problem is they don't generate much thrust and therefore don't really help with "getting there faster". Deep space one [wikipedia.org] pioneered ion propulsion technology. Can't do nuclear propulsion like Project Orion [wikipedia.org] due to international treaties and what not. Basically anything other than chemical propulsion is experimental and no one is willing to foot the bill to make the technology mature.
      • by oni (41625)
        Can't do nuclear propulsion like Project Orion due to international treaties and what not.

        The treaty should be changed if it hampers the progress of our species. No, we shouldn't be setting off nukes in low earth orbit, but we should be using them (or at least open to the possibility of usng them) farther out.

        Another good idea is the nuclear thermal rocket [wikipedia.org]. Basically, you use a nuclear reactor to super-heat the propellant, which then expands (quite rapidly) pushing the craft forward. The exhaust gas isn'
        • by compro01 (777531)
          The treaty should be changed if it hampers the progress of our species.

          substantially altering something is significantly more difficult/time-consuming than it was to make the thing in the first place.

          how many years of talking and head-bashing do you think it took to make said treaties? it will take a lot more to change them.

          I'm not saying that the treaties shouldn't be changed, but it will take time.
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          Die-hard Luddites still have a say in our society because somewhere along the line we perverted the notion of freedom of speech into the notion that every proposition, no matter how factually bankrupt or logically absurd, is equally worthy of continued attention. The marketplace of ideas ensures that each idea is given a fair hearing at least once, but it shouldn't represent that all ideas are similarly good. Everyone has a right to be heard, but not a right to be believed.

          Exotic propulsion technologi

        • Let's see what happens when Bush announces the US is developing nuclear engines for peaceful space exploration.
  • Great! Now we can apply the Trans-Linear Vector Principle! And the fuel is so... fitting.
  • Anyone know why the various images shows a kind of banding, almost as if the thrust had vertebrae? I'd expect to see one, but it's an interesting pattern that repeats all the way down.
     
    • Shock diamonds. (Score:2, Informative)

      by ClayJar (126217)
      That appeared to me to be a nice illustration of "shock diamonds [wikipedia.org]".

      You can get some really interesting designs out of high-speed flows, especially when you throw in some bright combustion. :)
  • by amightywind (691887) on Wednesday January 17, 2007 @03:25PM (#17650586) Journal

    I am partial to US technology in most matters but South Korea successfully tested [hobbyspace.com] a 20,000lb thrust methane engine last year. I believe that Japanese have something similar.

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