NASA-funded rocket engine project takes space travel to new heights

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A University of Central Florida researcher has been awarded $50,000 by NASA to pioneer the fastest rocket engine yet, a breakthrough that promises to revolutionize future space missions.

The groundbreaking project will innovate the rotary detonation rocket engine. This type of rocket engine uses high-energy explosions to cultivate more power while using less fuel, greatly increasing engine efficiency and reducing space travel costs and emissions. The technology can also be used in airplanes, cutting transatlantic flight times from hours to minutes.

What is a Rotary Detonation Rocket Engine?

The rotary detonation rocket engine is powered by constant Mach 5 explosions spinning inside the engine. These explosions are fueled by hydrogen and oxygen propellants that are introduced into the system in specific amounts.

Mach 5 explosions produce bursts of energy that travel between 4,500 and 5,600 miles per hour, more than five times the speed of sound. By harnessing the substantial power of these high energy detonations, more energy can be generated with less fuel. This greatly optimizes engine efficiency, making space travel more economical while limiting harmful emissions.

What will the project consist of?

The company will be led by Kareem Ahmed, who has studied rotary detonation rocket engines for years and is an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Space Engineering at the University of Central Florida.

The $50,000 funding will allow the team to develop a rotary detonation rocket engine to replace the traditionally used RL10 engine that currently powers most spaceflight, such as the impending Artemis missions.

Variants of the RL10 engine are also used in various launch vehicles, including Atlas V, Vulcan, and Orbital ATK OmegA. Researchers have already published a study proving the potential performance of the rotary detonation rocket engine.

Ahmed commented, “We demonstrated the technology. Now is the time for development. Since the U.S. government is the largest user of launch services in the world, the development of high-performance, lower-cost rotary detonation rocket engine technology will result in significant cost savings.

Thrust propulsion testing and characterization of the UCF Rotary Detonation Rocket Engine is shown in this photo. Credit: University of Central Florida

Other commercial uses

This type of cutting-edge engine could also have a range of commercial applications, enabling new markets, such as global high-speed Internet services via satellite due to lower start-up costs.

Additionally, federal agencies including NASA, the Department of Defense, the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration depend on satellites and would benefit from the technology.

Rotary detonation rocket engines can also be used to improve commercial air travel, allowing trips from coast to coast in less than 30 minutes and flights from New York to London in just five minutes.

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