To bring the new era of space exploration, one of the primary focuses is to produce low-cost rockets. In order to achieve this goal, a team of engineers from the University of Glasgow and Ukraine has come up with an entirely different idea that could make the launch of small payloads affordable.
They have developed a prototype of a self-eating rocket which consumes its structure as a fuel while taking off. By reducing the costs of individual launches, space agencies and private aerospace companies will be able to commercialize Low Earth-Orbit (LEO) as well as launch more exploration missions.
Problems with current launch vehicles
The problem with rockets that are used today is associated with their storage tanks that contain rocket’s propellant. The storage tank weight many times the spacecraft’s payload. This not only reduces the efficiency of the launch vehicles but also adds to the problem of space debris as these fuel tanks are disposable and fall away when spent. Launch vehicles tend to be large because a large amount of propellant is needed to reach space. There is a limit on how small you can go as the volume of propellant falls more quickly than the mass of the structure, hence; one might end with a vehicle that is smaller but, proportionately, too heavy to reach an orbital speed
Self-eating rocket to solve the issue
This self-eating rocket has an autophage engine that consumes its own structure during ascent, hence; in this rocket more cargo capacity could be freed-up and less debris would enter orbit. The propellant has a solid fuel rod that is made of solid plastic like polyethylene on the outside and an oxidiser on the inside. When this rod is put into the hot engine, the fuel and oxidiser are vaporised to create gas that flows into the combustion chamber and produce thrust.
The propellant rod itself make up the body of the rocket and as the vehicle will climb up, the engine would work its way up, consuming the body from base to tip. The rocket structure itself get consumed as fuel so, there will be no problems of excessive structural mass.
The team showed that the engine could be controlled by simply varying the speed at which rod is driven into the engine. Scientists are now working to improve the engine design further and incorporate it in the launch vehicles