|SSC key in quest for next gen engine
Spacecraft propulsion has been a key activity in the region for years, but the quest to
replace Russian engines and create a new generation of U.S. powerplants is making
SSC a key battlefield...
NASA’s rocket engine test facility in South Mississippi has become a battleground in
the contest to replace Russian-built engines used for government launches.
SpaceX and Aerojet Rocketdyne, two of the four companies competing to develop
engines to replace the RD-180, both have chosen to use Stennis Space Center
(SSC) to develop the crucial engines.
Aerojet Rocketdyne announced last month that it will use SSC to develop the AR1, a
500,000-pound thrust class engine. Five months before that announcement Aerojet
Rocketdyne was awarded a $115.3 million “other transaction agreement” for the
development of the AR1 prototype for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle
For SSC, that was good news after good news. In January, also as part of the effort
to replace the RD-180, the Air Force awarded a $33.6 million contract to Space
Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) to develop the Raptor methane rocket
engine for the EELV. SpaceX has been using SSC to test the Raptor since 2014 after
upgrading the E-2 test stand with methane capability.
At issue is the effort to find a replacement engine for the EELV, a program started in
the 1990s to assure U.S. access to space for the Department of Defense and other
For the past decade United Launch Alliance, a joint Boeing and Lockheed Martin
company, has had a lock on the launches. The Atlas V, which boosts most of the U.S.
government’s satellites, has a first stage powered by the Russian-made RD-180.
That engine, designed by NPO Energomash, is modified specifically for the U.S. Atlas
launcher. But the engine was caught up in the disagreement between the United
States and Russia in the wake of the 2014 Russian takeover of Crimea.
The 2015 Defense Authorization Act requires transition from the RD-180 engines for
National Security launches. In addition to Aerojet Rocketdyne and SpaceX, Blue
Origin and Orbital ATK also are working on EELV engines.
The awards to SpaceX and Rocketdyne were “other transaction agreements,” used
instead of a standard procurement contract to leverage ongoing investment by
industry in rocket propulsion systems. In this type of agreement, the company and
federal government share development costs.
Rocketdyne is contributing $57.7 million at the time of award in February to develop
the AR1, a booster stage engine intended for use on United Launch Alliance’s
Vulcan launch vehicle, the planned replacement for the Atlas V. The total potential
government investment, including all options, is $536 million. The total potential
investment by Rocketdyne, including all options, is $268 million.
For the Raptor engine, SpaceX is contributing $67.3 million at the time of the January
award to develop the prototype for the upper stage of the company’s Falcon 9 and
Falcon Heavy launch vehicles. The total potential government investment is $61.4
million. The potential investment by SpaceX is $122.8 million.
In January, the same time SpaceX won a contract, a $47 million contract went to Utah-
based Orbital ATK for a new solid-fueled rocket motor for a large satellite launcher
concept being designed by Orbital ATK. New strap-on solid rocket boosters made by
Orbital for ULA’s Vulcan rocket, and a Blue Origin-built upper stage engine for Orbital
ATK’s own proposed launcher also received funding.
ULA wants to fly its next-generation Vulcan rocket with engines made by Blue Origin
burning liquefied natural gas, a fuel never before used on a large orbital-class
launcher. ULA says the BE-4 will be ready sooner and will be easier to eventually
recover and reuse. That engine got a separate Air Force cash infusion Feb. 29.
The AR1 engine burns a mixture of kerosene and liquid oxygen, the same
propellants as the RD-180. Rocketdyne successfully achieved full-power during a
preburner test series at SSC in early June. Aerojet plans to have the engine flight-
qualified by 2019.
The methane-fueled Raptor engine has about three times the thrust of the company’
s existing Merlin powerplants. SpaceX has been testing components for the Raptor
since it cut the ribbon on its E-2 test stand in April 2014. In addition to having its eyes
on the EELV, SpaceX’s is also creating new spaceships that will take colonists to
Mars. Plans are to use the Raptor engine.
The Raptor is capable of generating nearly 300 tons of thrust, and can be used for
both the upper and core stage of launch vehicles. A cluster of nine will be used on
the core stage of the planned Mars Colonial Transporter. The Raptors use of
methane as a fuel is crucial since methane can be synthesized on Mars.
The BE-4 will generate 550,000 pounds of thrust and consume a cryogenic
combination of liquefied natural gas and liquid oxygen. Two of the BE-4 engines
would boost the Vulcan rockets first stage. The BE-4 should finish qualification
testing in 2017.
In addition to the engine competition, there’s also the competition for launch
contracts. ULA had been the only company offering the service, but in May 2015
SpaceX’s Falcon 9 was certified to handle military satellite launches. In October the
Air Force called for bids, and ULA opted not to submit one.
California-based SpaceX did bid and was awarded an $83 million contract in April to
launch the second GPS-III satellite. Because of the new, lower-cost competition,
Colorado-based ULA is revamping its lineup of rockets and trimming costs.
The Air Force on Aug. 3 sent draft request proposals to both launch providers it
expects to bid on the third GPS-III satellite. Bids are due by Sept. 19 and the launch
is scheduled for 2019.
Rocketdyne already assembles and tests the RS-68 and RS-25 engines at SSC, and
the company’s decision to add the AR1 to its lineup - along with SpaceX’s decision to
develop the Raptor at SSC, underscores the value of NASA’s engine test center.
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