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.
"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.
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Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace