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Hypergolic rocket engine with advanced throttling tested by Sierra Space
Sierra Space successfully tested a new 5,500 lbf hypergolic rocket engine capable of continuous throttling. (PHOTO: Sierra Space)
Hypergolic rocket engine with advanced throttling tested by Sierra Space
by Brad Bartz
Los Angeles CA (SPX) Nov 12, 2023

Sierra Space has achieved a significant milestone with the successful testing of its new VRM5500-H hypergolic rocket engine, promising to revolutionize the current propulsion systems in space. This engine, with its high thrust and exceptional throttling abilities, is poised to set new standards in space propulsion technology.

The VRM5500-H engine, operating on hydrazine fuel and MON3 oxidizer in a staged combustion cycle, delivers a remarkable vacuum specific impulse of over 339 seconds. Its capability to continuously throttle from a maximum of 5,500 lbf down to 900 lbf at 17% power underscores its precision and adaptability for various space missions.

Tom Vice, CEO of Sierra Space, emphasizes, "This high-performance, reusable bipropellant engine represents a major leap in space propulsion technology, setting new standards for efficiency, reusability, and versatility." The engine's design aligns perfectly with in-space applications where reusability, storability, throttling, and vehicle weight-saving are essential, making it an ideal choice for landers, upper stages, transit vehicles, and extended-duration missions.

A notable feature of the VRM5500-H engine is its use of hydrazine as the fuel. This choice not only ensures high efficiency but also promotes commonality with spacecraft employing hydrazine monopropellant thrusters for attitude control and maneuvering. This strategic decision simplifies the overall propulsion system architecture, enhancing operational coherence and efficiency.

The development of this engine showcases a collaboration with Agile Space Industries, particularly in creating an innovative preburner - a critical component for achieving high combustion efficiency and stability across the throttle range. Agile Space Industries' CEO Chris Pearson shares, "In a timeline of 19 weeks, Agile was able to design, manufacture, test, iterate and deliver a reliable preburner." This rapid development, especially of a high-flow hydrazine-rich preburner, marks a unique achievement in the field, demonstrating stable operation across a 6:1 throttle range with high combustion efficiency.

The rigorous testing of the VRM5500-H engine at the US Army DEVCOM stand at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, confirmed its efficient and stable combustion at all throttle points. The testing phase was critical in demonstrating the engine's capability to exceed the minimum throttle Isp of 339 seconds, thereby validating its performance claims.

The teams at Sierra Space and Agile Space Industries executed the design, development, and testing of the prototype engine in just over nine months. This rapid development was facilitated by employing advanced design-to-test cycles and heavy use of additive manufacturing techniques. The thrust chamber and preburner, fully 3D printed on common metallic printers, underscore Sierra Space's commitment to innovating aerospace design and manufacturing technologies.

The successful testing of the VRM5500-H engine by Sierra Space marks a significant advancement in space propulsion technology. Its high efficiency, versatility, and innovative design approach demonstrate the company's commitment to pushing the boundaries of what is possible in space exploration and travel. The engine's development and testing not only highlight the capabilities of Sierra Space and its partners but also set a precedent for future advancements in space propulsion systems.

ai.spacedaily.com analysis

Relevance Ratings:

1. Space Industry Analyst: 8/10
2. Space Finance Analyst: 7/10
3. Space Policy Maker: 6/10
4. Space S and T Professional: 9/10

Comprehensive Analyst Summary:

The Sierra Space's development of a new 5,500 lbf hypergolic rocket engine, as reported in the article, marks a significant advancement in space propulsion technology. This engine, notable for its use of hydrazine fuel and MON3 oxidizer, sets a new standard in efficiency, reusability, and versatility. Its capability for continuous throttling is particularly groundbreaking, offering precise control and maneuverability critical for landers, upper stages, transit vehicles, and extended-duration missions.

From a space industry analyst perspective, this development is highly relevant due to its potential impact on future space missions, especially those requiring delicate maneuvering and long-term operability. It signifies a leap in propulsion technology, likely influencing future spacecraft designs and mission parameters.

For space finance analysts, the relevance is slightly lower but still significant. The development of such advanced technology can attract new investments and partnerships, potentially leading to a more robust market presence for Sierra Space and Agile Space Industries.

Policy makers in the space sector would be interested in the implications of this technology for national and international space missions, especially regarding safety and efficiency. However, the direct impact on policy might be less immediate than on other sectors.

For space science and technology professionals, this engine represents a major advancement. The use of a highly innovative preburner and advanced cooling techniques in the thrust chamber, along with the rapid development timeline facilitated by 3D printing technologies, showcase significant progress in engineering and manufacturing capabilities in the space sector.

Contextual Background and Historical Milestones:

This development can be compared to historical advancements in rocket propulsion, such as the transition from liquid to solid propellant systems or the introduction of reusable rocket technology by companies like SpaceX. The rapid prototyping and use of additive manufacturing mirror the broader industry trend towards faster, more flexible production methods.

Comparison with Past Decade in Space Industry:

Over the past 10 years, the space industry has seen a shift towards reusable technology and increased efficiency. Sierra Space's engine is aligned with these trends, representing both an evolution and a significant step forward in propulsion technology. The emphasis on rapid development and testing is also reflective of a broader industry shift towards agility and innovation.

Implications for the International Landscape:

This development fits into global trends of advancing space technology, increasing competitiveness in the space sector, and the push for more sustainable, efficient propulsion systems. It also highlights the growing importance of rapid development cycles and additive manufacturing in maintaining a competitive edge.

Investigative Questions:

1. How does this engine technology compare to existing propulsion systems in terms of cost-efficiency and performance?

2. What are the potential applications for this technology in upcoming space missions?

3. How will this advancement affect international collaborations and competition in space technology?

4. What are the environmental impacts of using hydrazine as a fuel?

5. What are the implications of this technology for long-duration space missions?

Related Links
Agile Space Industries
Sierra Space
Rocket Science News at Space-Travel.Com

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