A successful firing test shows that Europe's lightweight Vega launcher is well on its way to cheaper and more efficient launches in 2025, officials say.
Video footage from the "hot-fire" test of a 3D-printed thrust chamber prototype for Vega's new M10 engine showed it successfully firing on a rainy day. Flames jut out from the thrust chamber, with the pressure causing ripples in the puddles below. The thrust chamber assembly fired 19 times for 450 seconds (about 7.5 minutes) at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama — a common location for developing rocket technology.
It's one small step on a longer road to development for Vega, which is now facing tight competition from private companies eager to grab a slice of the small-launcher space. The M10 engine uses liquid oxygen and liquid methane (which are two environmentally friendly fuels) to replace the second- and third-stage engines in the current Vega rocket, the European Space Agency said in a statement.
Video: Hotfire! Future Vega rocket's 3D-printed engine component tested
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"These test results are encouraging, confirming that our propulsion teams are right on track along the development path identified for such novel technology for Vega evolutions," Giorgio Tumino, the manager of ESA's Vega development program, said in the statement.
The M10 is not only cheaper to manufacture but is also billed as more environmentally friendly. It is restartable and uses smart pressure control, which will save on fuel. (Rocket propulsion tends to be one of the most expensive costs for space missions.)
The big challenge in building the M10 via 3D printing, or additive layers, is trying to do product inspections, ESA said. "Non-destructive inspection such as tomography and ultrasound is used to detect defects, geometry distortions and potential obstructions within cooling channels," the agency added.
The first development model of the M10 engine should undergo its first hot firing at the end of 2020. Ground qualification is scheduled for 2024, and then the engine will be put into launch vehicles starting in 2025.
Vega is operated by Arianespace , a commercial launch service provider, to send small spacecraft and payloads to polar and low Earth orbits, and had its first launch in 2012.
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