An RS-68 engine undergoing hot-fire testing at NASA's Stennis Space Center during its developmental phase.
|Country of origin||United States|
Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne
|Application||first stage engine for Delta IV rocket|
|Propellant||LOX / LH2|
|Thrust (vac.)||758,000 lbf (3,370 kN)|
|Chamber pressure||1,488 psia (9.7 MPa)|
|Isp (vac.)||410 s|
|Dry weight||14,560 lb (6,600 kg)|
The Aerojet Rocketdyne (formerly Rocketdyne and later Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne) RS-68 (Rocket System 68) is a liquid-fuel rocket engine that uses liquid hydrogen (LH2) and liquid oxygen (LOX) as propellants in a gas-generator power cycle. It is the largest hydrogen-fueled engine in the world.
Development of the engine started in the 1990s with the goal of producing a simpler, less-costly, heavy-lift engine for the Delta IV launch system. The engine has three versions: the original RS-68, the improved RS-68A, and the RS-68B for NASA.
Design and development
A leading goal of the RS-68 program was to produce a simple engine that would be cost-effective when used for a single launch. To achieve this, the RS-68 has 80% fewer parts than the multi-launch Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME). Simplicity came at the cost of lower thrust-efficiency versus the SSME: the RS-68's thrust-to-weight ratio is significantly lower and the RS-68's specific impulse is 10% lower. The benefit of the RS-68 is its reduced construction cost. The SSME's higher costs were designed to be spread across multiple launches, while the larger, more powerful RS-68 was designed to be a more cost-effective engine for an expendable launch vehicle.
The engine itself is a gas generator cycle engine with two independent turbopumps. The combustion chamber uses a channel-wall design to reduce cost. This design, pioneered in the former Soviet Union, features inner and outer skins brazed to middle separators, forming cooling channels. This method is heavier, but much simpler and cheaper than the tube-wall design (using hundreds of tubes, bent into the shape of the combustion chamber and brazed together) used in other engines. The lower nozzle has an expansion ratio of 21.5 and is lined with an ablative material. The nozzle's lining is designed to burn away as the engine runs, dissipating heat. This is heavier than the tube-wall nozzles used in other engines, but is also much easier and less expensive to manufacture. The presence of carbon in the exhaust (in this case from the ablative inner nozzle lining made from a carbon-containing material) can be inferred by the yellow color of the engine exhaust. This is in contrast to the nearly-transparent flame of a pure hydrogen burning engine such as the SSME. The combustion chamber burns liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen at 1,486 lbf/in² (10.25 MPa) at 102% power with a 1:6 engine mixture ratio.
The RS-68 was developed at Rocketdyne Propulsion and Power, located in Canoga Park, Los Angeles, California, where the SSME is manufactured. It was designed to power the Delta IV Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV). The initial development engines were assembled at the nearby Santa Susana Field Laboratory where the Saturn V F-1 engines were developed and tested for the Apollo missions to the Moon. The RS-68 had initial testing done at Air Force Research Lab, Edwards AFB and later at NASA's Stennis Space Center. The first successful test firing at AFRL was completed on September 11, 1998, and the first successful test firing at Stennis on September 22, 1999. The RS-68 was certified for use on Delta IV in December 2001. The first successful launch using the new engine and launch vehicle occurred on November 20, 2002.
The RS-68 is part of the Common Booster Core (CBC) used to create the five variants of the Delta IV family of launch vehicles. The largest of the launch vehicles includes three CBCs mounted together for the Heavy.
At a maximum 102% thrust, the engine produces 758,000 pounds-force (3,370 kN) in a vacuum and 663,000 pounds-force (2,950 kN) at sea level. The engine's mass is 14,560 pounds (6,600 kg) at 96 inches (2.4 m). With this thrust, the engine has a thrust-to-weight ratio of 51.2, and a specific impulse of 410 s (4 kN·s/kg) in a vacuum and 365 s (3.58 kN·s/kg) at sea level. The RS-68 is gimbaled hydraulically and is capable of throttling between 58% and 101% thrust.
The RS-68A is an updated version of the RS-68, with changes to provide increased specific impulse and thrust (to over 700,000 pounds-force (3,100,000 N) at sea level). The first launch used three RS-68A engines mounted in a Delta IV Heavy. This first launch occurred June 29, 2012 from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
On May 18, 2006, NASA announced that five RS-68 engines would be used instead of SSMEs on the planned Ares V (CaLV). NASA chose the RS-68 because of its lower cost, about $20 million per engine after NASA upgrades. The modifications to the RS-68 for the Ares V include a different ablative nozzle to accommodate a longer burn, a shorter start sequence, hardware changes to limit free hydrogen at ignition, and changes to reduce helium use during countdown and flight. Thrust and specific impulse increases will occur under a separate upgrade program for Delta IV. Later the Ares V was changed to use six RS-68 engines. The engine version for NASA's Ares V is designated RS-68B. The DIRECT alternative launch project included two or three RS-68 engines in "version 2.0" of the team's proposal, but switched to the Space Shuttle Main Engine (SSME) for "version 3.0".
On April 4, 2008, the Air Force awarded Boeing Launch Services of Huntington Beach, Calif., a modified contract for $20 million. This contract modification will authorize Boeing to perform demonstration testing on a rebuilt RS-68 engine. The government has authorized work under the Assured Access to Space initiative to develop hardware that will reduce or eliminate these risks and increase the reliability of the RS-68 engine.
It would reportedly require over 200 changes to the RS-68 to meet human-rating standards. NASA states several changes are needed to human-rate the RS-68, including health monitoring, removal of fuel-rich environment at liftoff, and improved subsystems robustness.
- RS-68 is the initial engine version. It produces 663,000 pounds-force (2,950 kN) thrust at sea level.
- RS-68A is an improved engine version. It produces 705,000 lbf (3,140 kN) thrust at sea level and 800,000 lbf (3,560 kN) thrust in vacuum. Vacuum specific impulse is 414 seconds. Certification testing was completed in November 2010. First flight was on a Delta IV Heavy launching NROL-15 on June 29, 2012.
- Comparison of orbital rocket engines
- M-1 (rocket engine)
- J-2 (rocket engine)
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- "Frequently Asked Questions, question 3". NASA ESMD.
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- Rocketdyne's RS-68 page
- RS-68 page on Astronautix.com
- Wood, B.K. (2002). "Propulsion for the 21st Century—RS-68" (doc). 38th Joint Liquid Propulsion Conference. Indianapolis, Indiana: AIAA.