NASA has awarded a $900k grant to researchers from the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA) to develop advanced designs for rotating detonation rocket engines (RDRE).
First developed by researchers at the University of Central Florida (UCF) in 2020, RDREs aim to replace upper-stage rocket engines in conventional launches with a whole new system that allows spacecraft to become lighter, travel farther, and be more efficient than current designs.
“Detonation is very fast combustion,” explained Liwei Zhang, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE)and the lead researcher on the NASA-funded effort. “Inside an RDRE, detonation waves spin around in a circle at supersonic speeds. Compared to conventional engines that rely on regular combustion, an RDRE has a theoretically higher efficiency and can be made smaller and more compact.”
Under the terms of the grant, Zhang and her colleagues will focus on improving RDREs at the component level. This includes increasing the performance and efficiency of injectors, combustors, and nozzles.
“We will also study system-level configurations for testing,” Zhang added. “It’s a collaborative effort among theoretical analyses, computational simulations, and experimental measurements to assess and improve the performance of this type of engine.”
Rotating Detonation Rocket Engines Extremely Complex
When the UCF researchers first developed the RDRE, they said the technology was considered “impossible.” That’s because the dynamics of making an RDRE function efficiently are incredibly complex.
“The rotating detonations are continuous, Mach 5 explosions that rotate around the inside of a rocket engine,” they explained at the time, “and the explosions are sustained by feeding hydrogen and oxygen propellant into the system at just the right amounts.”
That challenge has haunted efforts to design a working RDRE since the 1950s. Still, the…