Rotating rocket science

As Australia’s space industry gears up, a team of Australian researchers has successfully tested a new type of engine that could be used in rocket launches.

Typical rocket engines burn fuel at a constant pressure in a chamber called a combustor. This engine has a ring-shaped combustor, and it detonates propellant rapidly around the ring.

Once started, there is a self-sustaining cycle of detonation waves travelling around the combustor at very high speeds, exceeding 2.5 kilometres per second.

It’s called a rotating detonation engine, or RDE. Once perfected, it could be more fuel efficient and more compact than typical rocket engines, meaning it could be cheaper and launch heavier items.

The engine was designed by engineers from RMIT University, and is being developed by a group of researchers from DefendTex, RMIT, University of Sydney and Universität der Bundeswehr in Germany.

“To succeed in such an exceptionally challenging project means a lot to everyone involved,” says Adrian Pudsey, an aerospace engineer from RMIT University. “Through strong collaboration over the past two years we now have a truly unique capability and have demonstrated the know-how and science required to push the boundaries of this technology even further.”

The next steps for the project involve looking at a 3D-printed, actively cooled version of the prototype, simulating the engine’s behaviour and figuring out how to merge the engine into a functioning vehicle.

These engine developments will require a lot of modelling and simulation, according to Matthew Cleary, a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Sydney.

“The rotating detonation engine combustor is an extreme environment that cannot easily be tested,” he says. “Experimental measurements cannot provide all the information we need to optimise these engines.”

The technology is still in very early stages, but the researchers say that it could become a useful part of Australia’s launching assets. 

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