- UK rocket firm tests new model of 3D printed engines in space-like conditions in preparation for orbital launch
Skyrora, a private spaceflight company headquartered in the United Kingdom, has begun a series of full-duration tests to qualify its 70kN 3D printed orbital engine for its first commercial orbital launch. For the first time, the engines were 3D printed using Skyrora’s Skyprint 2 machine, cutting production time in half and lowering costs.
The new engine design includes an improved engine cooling chamber to improve cooling efficiency and, as a result, extend the engine’s life cycle. Skyrora’s 70 kN engines can now be manufactured approximately 66% faster and 20% cheaper than the original model.
3D Printed Orbital Engine
During the engine tests, various parameters such as life cycle and full operational envelope testing will be evaluated while the engine runs for 250 seconds, the same amount of time that it will run in a real mission to reach orbit. A successful test will show nominal chamber pressures and thrust levels with no hardware damage. It takes about three weeks to complete a test article iteration that includes data analysis, design adjustments, and manufacturing.
When qualified, the updated 70 kN engine will be the first commercial engine to use a closed-cycle staged combustion system powered by a mixture of hydrogen peroxide and kerosene. While it has not been used in the past due to its complexity, the higher specific impulse generated by this design will increase the engine’s overall efficiency.
The trials, which will take place at Skyrora’s test site in Midlothian, Scotland, the largest of its kind in the UK, will be overseen by the company’s team of experts every week throughout the summer. The completion of this series of tests will be a significant milestone in the company’s contract with the European Space Agency’s Commercial Space Transportation Services and Support Programme.
“The new models of 3D printed engines are bringing Skyrora closer towards efficient commercial orbital launch. With our purpose-built rocket manufacturing and testing facilities in Scotland, we are proud to be localising as much of the launch value chain as possible. The new engine technology developed by Skyrora’s engineers and the commitment to a sustainable design are a testament to the innovation taking place in the UK space sector.”– Volodymyr Levykin, CEO and Founder, Skyrora
The updated engine design was fully developed using Skyrora’s in-house additive manufacturing capabilities, with additional support from ESA’s Boost! programme, and will serve as a critical component on the first and second stages of Skyrora’s XL orbital vehicle. Skyprint 2’s machine, materials, and machining process will be qualified in collaboration with the National Manufacturing Institute of Scotland (NMIS). These certifications will allow Skyprint 2 to be used commercially by third parties, further diversifying Skyrora’s commercial offering in the new space market.
Jorgen Bru, Commercial Services Manager at the European Space Agency, said, “Skyrora is making important progress towards the 70kN engine qualification, which is one of the key objectives of the pre-commercial launch service development activities supported by ESA’s Boost! programme. ESA is continuing to support Skyrora along the way to offer new commercial launch services for the benefit of a competitive space sector in Europe.”
Skyrora will be able to scale up production and increase engine production rate once qualified. Skyrora intends to build a series of production engines after the engine qualification programme is completed in order to test the entire first stage of Skyrora XL, the final stage to be tested prior to a demo orbital launch. The company has already successfully tested the vehicle’s third and second stages in 2020 and 2022, respectively, with the most recent second stage test being the largest of its kind in the UK in half a century.
Along with engine qualification, Skyrora has been collaborating with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to advance their orbital launch vehicle licence application, which they submitted last year, recently hosting the board of directors at Skyrora’s engine manufacturing facility just outside of Glasgow. Skyrora will be able to begin commercial launch operations from SaxaVord Spaceport in the Shetland Isles once the licence is approved.
“We’re coming very close to finalising our engine qualification programme after a long journey of technical progress, which will be a massive success for the team. This is a key milestone which will qualify one of the main subsystems of our orbital launch vehicle to the correct standards for commercial operations, and as such, is a significant step in the journey to orbital launch. This progress would not be possible without the hard work of the team, who have done an amazing job enabling rapid fire testing.”– Dr. Jack James Marlow, Head of Engineering, Skyrora
Acording to Dr. Paul Bate, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency, “It’s impressive to see how innovative British-based companies such as Skyrora are using UK Space Agency funding to develop sector-leading technologies. The new 3D printed engines are setting new standards in cost-effective sustainable design and manufacturing efficiency. While sustainability remains a complex challenge, it also presents a significant opportunity for the UK to catalyse future innovations, creating commercial opportunities and strengthening the UK’s global position in the space sector.”
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