SpaceX rocket engine family
In the first ten years of SpaceX, the company has developed a variety of liquid-propellant rocket engines, with at least one more of that type under development in late 2012. As of October 2012[update], each of the engines developed to date—Kestrel, Merlin 1, Draco and Super Draco—have been developed for initial use in the SpaceX Falcon family of launch vehicles—Falcon 1, Falcon 9, and Falcon Heavy—or for the Dragon capsule. Each main engine to date has been Kerosene-based, using RP-1 as the fuel with liquid oxygen (LOX) as the oxidizer, while the RCS control thruster engines have used storable hypergolic propellants.
In November 2012, at a meeting of the Royal Aeronautical Society in London, United Kingdom, SpaceX announced that they plan to develop methane-based engines for their future rockets. These engines will use staged cycle combustion, for higher efficiency similar to the system used on the former Soviet Union's NK-33 engine.
SpaceX has developed two Kerosene-based engines through 2012, the Merlin 1 and Kestrel, and has publicly discussed a much larger concept engine high-level design named Merlin 2. Merlin 1 powers the first stage of the Falcon 1 launch vehicle, both the first and second stages of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles, as well as the experimental technology-demonstrator Grasshopper VTVL rocket. The Falcon 1 second stage is powered by a Kestrel engine.
Merlin 1 is a family of LOX/RP-1 rocket engines developed 2003-2012. Merlin 1A and Merlin 1B utilized an ablatively cooled carbon fiber composite nozzle. Merlin 1A produced 340 kilonewtons (76,000 lbf) of thrust and was used to power the first stage of the first two Falcon 1 flights in 2006 and 2007. Merlin 1B had a somewhat more powerful turbo-pump and more thrust but was not flown on a flight vehicle prior to SpaceX moving on to the Merlin 1C.
The Merlin 1C uses a regeneratively cooled nozzle and combustion chamber. It was first fired with a full mission duty firing 2007, first flew on the third Falcon 1 mission in August 2008, powered the "first privately-developed liquid-fueled rocket to successfully reach orbit", Falcon 1 Flight 4, in September 2008, and subsequently powered the first five Falcon 9 flights—each flown with a version 1.0 Falcon 9 launch vehicle—in 2010–2013.
The Merlin 1D, was in development in 2011-2012, also with a regeneratively cooled nozzle and combustion chamber, has a vacuum thrust of 690 kN (155,000 lbf), a vacuum specific impulse (Isp) of 310 s, an increased expansion ratio of 16 (as opposed to the previous 14.5 of the Merlin 1C) and chamber pressure of 9.7 MPa (1,410 psi). A new feature for the engine is the ability to throttle from 100% to 70%. The engine's 150:1 thrust-to-weight ratio is the highest ever achieved for a rocket engine. The first flight of the Merlin 1D engine was also the maiden Falcon 9 v1.1 flight. On 29 September 2013, the Falcon 9 Flight 6 mission successfully launched the Canadian Space Agency's CASSIOPE satellite into polar orbit, and proved that the Merlin 1D could be restarted to control the first stage's re-entry back into the atmosphere—part of the SpaceX reusable launch system flight test program—a necessary step in making the rocket reusable.
Kestrel was a LOX/RP-1 pressure-fed rocket engine, and was developed by SpaceX[when?] as the Falcon 1 rocket's second stage main engine. It was built around the same pintle architecture as SpaceX's Merlin engine but does not have a turbo-pump, and is fed only by tank pressure. Its nozzle was ablatively cooled in the chamber and throat and radiatively cooled, and is fabricated from a high strength niobium alloy. Thrust vector control is provided by electro-mechanical actuators on the engine dome for pitch and yaw. Roll control – and attitude control during the coast phase – is provided by helium cold gas thrusters.
In November 2012, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced a new direction for propulsion side of the company: developing methane/LOX rocket engines. SpaceX work on methane/LOX (methalox) engines is strictly to support the company's Mars technology development program. They have no plans to build an upper stage engine for the Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy using methalox propellant. The focus of the new engine development program is exclusively on the full-size Raptor engine for the Mars-focused mission.
Raptor is a methane/liquid oxygen rocket engine under development by SpaceX since the late 2000s, although LH2/LOX propellant mix was originally under study when the Raptor concept development work began in 2009. When first mentioned by SpaceX in 2009, the term "Raptor" was applied exclusively to an upper stage engine concept. SpaceX discussed in October 2013 that they intend to build a family of methane-based Raptor rocket engines, initially announcing that the engine would achieve 2.94 meganewtons (661,000 lbf) vacuum thrust. In February 2014, they announced that Raptor would be used on both a new upper stage as well as for the very large 10-meter-diameter launch vehicle of the Mars Colonial Transporter. Each booster core will utilize nine Raptor engines, similar to the use of nine Merlin 1s on each Falcon 9 booster core. The following month, SpaceX confirmed that as of March 2014[update], all Raptor development work is exclusively on this single very large rocket engine, and that no smaller Raptor engines are in the current development mix.
The Raptor methane/LOX engine will use a highly efficient and theoretically more reliable full-flow staged combustion cycle, a departure from the open gas generator cycle system and LOX/kerosene propellants used on the current Merlin 1 engine series. As of February 2014[update], Raptor is being designed to produce 4.4 meganewtons (1,000,000 lbf) of thrust with a vacuum specific impulse (Isp) of 363 seconds and a sea-level Isp of 321 seconds.
Raptor's full-flow staged combustion cycle will pass 100 percent of the oxidizer (with a low-fuel ratio) to power the oxygen turbine pump, and 100 percent of the fuel (with a low-oxygen ratio) to power the methane turbine pump. Both streams—oxidizer and fuel—will be completely in the gas phase before they enter the combustion chamber. Prior to 2014, only two full-flow staged combustion rocket engines have ever progressed sufficiently to be tested on test stands: the Soviet RD-270 project in the 1960s and the Aerojet Rocketdyne Integrated powerhead demonstration project in the mid-2000s.
Other characteristics of the full-flow design are projected to further increase performance or reliability, with the possibility to do design trade offs of one against the other:
- eliminating the fuel-oxidizer turbine interseal which is traditionally a point of failure in modern chemical rocket engines
- lower pressures are required through the pumping system, increasing life span and further reducing risk of catastrophic failure
- ability to increase the combustion chamber pressure, thereby either increasing overall performance, or "by using cooler gases, providing the same performance as a standard staged combustion engine but with much less stress on materials, thus significantly reducing material fatigue or [engine] weight."
Draco are hypergolic liquid-propellant rocket engines that utilize a mixture of monomethyl hydrazine fuel and nitrogen tetroxide oxidizer. Each Draco thruster generates 400 newtons (90 lbf) of thrust. They are used as Reaction Control System (RCS) thrusters on both the Dragon spacecraft, and on the Falcon 9 launch vehicle second-stage.
SuperDraco storable-propellant hypergolic engines generate 67,000 newtons (15,000 lbf) of thrust, making the SuperDraco the second most powerful engine developed by SpaceX, more than 200 times more powerful than the regular Draco RCS thruster engines. By comparison, it is more than two times as powerful as the Kestrel engine used in SpaceX's Falcon 1 launch vehicle second stage, and about 1/9 the thrust of a Merlin 1D engine. They will be used as Launch Abort System engines on the version 2 Dragon spacecraft, Dragon V2, for crew transport to low-Earth orbit, as well as entry, descent and landing control of the proposed Red Dragon robotic probe to Mars.
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