NASA just test fired a rocket designed to power long-term Moon trips

A revolutionary new form of rocket has just been tested by NASA. Called RDRE, this new propulsion device could make long-term Moon missions viable.
Christopher McFadden
Image of the hot fire test.


NASA's propulsion development engineers have built and tested the agency's first full-scale rotating detonation rocket engine, or RDRE for short. This advanced rocket engine design could change how propulsion systems are built in the future in a big way.

This work comes as NASA begins to take the first steps toward establishing a long-term presence on the surface of the Moon.

NASA's plan for a long-term presence on the Moon is called the Artemis program. The program's goal is to set up a stable way to explore the Moon by the decade's end. This includes making a lander that people can use, building a Gateway space station in lunar orbit, and sending surface systems and rovers to the Moon. The end goal of the Artemis program is to set up a permanent base on the Moon and prepare to send people to Mars.

The RDRE is different from other rocket engines because it gets thrust from a supersonic combustion process called detonation. This design can power human landers and interplanetary vehicles that travel to faraway places like the Moon and Mars. This is because it produces more power than current propulsion systems while using less fuel.

Data from RDRE hot fire tests carried out in 2022 at Marshall's East Test Area is confirmed by engineers at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, and principal collaborator IN Space LLC in West Lafayette, Indiana. The engine was started over a dozen times for more than ten minutes.

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RDRE is built in part using 3D printing

By proving that its hardware, constructed using cutting-edge additive manufacturing or 3D printing, designs, and processes, could function for extended periods while withstanding the intense heat and pressure environments produced by detonations, the RDRE successfully met its main test objective.

The RDRE achieved the highest pressure rating for this design ever recorded while operating at full throttle, producing almost 4,000 pounds ( 17.8 kilonewtons) of thrust for nearly a minute at an average chamber pressure of 622 pounds per square inch (4.6 Newton/mm2).

The RDRE uses the powder bed fusion additive manufacturing technique and the NASA-developed copper alloy GRCop-42, enabling the engine to run in harsh circumstances without overheating.

Powder bed fusion (PBF) is a type of additive manufacturing (AM) process that uses a laser or an electron beam to melt and fuse successive layers of metal or plastic powder. The process is typically used to create complex, three-dimensional parts with high precision and accuracy.

The powders used in PBF can be made of various materials, including metals (such as titanium, aluminum, and stainless steel) and plastics (such as nylon and polyamide). PBF is commonly used in the aerospace, medical, and automotive industries to prototype and produce end-use parts. Some of the most popular PBF technologies are Selective laser melting (SLM) and Direct Energy Deposition (DED).

Deep throttling and internal ignition were successfully performed during the test, which was another significant accomplishment. By successfully demonstrating the technology, NASA and commercial space may now transfer more payload and mass to deep space destinations, which is a crucial step toward increasing the sustainability of space exploration.

Because of the RDRE's recent success, NASA engineers are now working to construct an utterly reusable 10,000-pound (4,536 kg) RDRE to compare its performance to conventional liquid rocket engines. The Game Changing Development Program at NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate oversees and funds RDRE.

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