Scientists want to create rockets that consume themselves as fuel

Space exploration is getting more and more attention. It is also getting cheaper, but today’s rockets are still fundamentally the same size they were in the 1950s. They also create a lot of waste, although reusable elements are increasingly more common. Now the UK Government is going to support development of an autophage rocket engine – a rocket that would consume itself as fuel.

Self-consuming rockets would be much smaller and more suited for smaller payloads, such as nano satellites. Image credit: NASA via Wikimedia

This autophage rocket engine, which is being built at the University of Glasgow, has numerous advantages. First of all, it could be smaller. Today the size of the rockets is determined by the fuel they carry. Because an autophage rocket would be its own fuel, it could be smaller. Scientists at the UK want smaller rockets to match their smaller payloads. They want to create more opportunities for the spaceports emerging across the northern regions of the UK, because sites in the US and Kazakhstan are more geared towards big payloads and big rockets.

The second advantage is reduced waste. You’ve seen those amazing videos of SpaceX boosters landing nicely so they could be reused for other missions. This helps reduce waste and cuts down on the cost of space exploration, because usually parts of rockets just splash down in the ocean, becoming junk. Autophage rockets would not land back on Earth. Instead, they would burn up while delivering payloads to the low Earth orbit.

Dr Patrick Harkness, one of the scientists from the project, said: “The body of a hybrid autophage rocket will be a tube of solid fuel, containing a liquid oxidiser. The entire assembly will be consumed, from the bottom up, by an engine which will vaporise the fuel tube, add the oxidiser, and burn the mixture to create thrust. The engine will have consumed the entire body of the rocket by the time the assembly reaches orbit, and only the payload will be left. It is a much more mass-efficient process.”

Scientists believe that the development of British autophage rockets would allow the UK’s space industry to thrive. They estimate that the demand for these types of launches could reach as many as 3,000 a year by the middle of this decade. This creates a global market worth hundreds of millions of dollars. With the investment of the Defence & Security Accelerator (DASA), which is part of the UK’s Ministry of Defence, the development of these autophage rockets should be significantly faster. Scientists are planning to test an engine like that next year at Kingston University in London’s new rocket laboratory in London.

Nano satellites and other smaller objects could be launched using these small autophage-type rockets. Hopefully, the development will go smoothly and pretty soon we will see the emergence of smaller rockets.


Source: University of Glasgow

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