India tests low-cost rocket engine

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A Space rocket being launched
New low-cost rocket engine tested in India

India on Sunday successfully tested a new rocket engine of the Super Sonic Combustion Ram Jet (SCRAMJET) from the southern spaceport of Sriharikota.

With the launch of the new engine, which could bring down space launch costs substantially, India joined the league of only two nations — the United States and Australia that have the technology. Japan, China are on their tail to acquire it.

The test was conducted by the state-run Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), using a sounding rocket.

“The test was a grand success,” ISRO chief Kiran Kumar told the media.

Weighing 3 tons, SCRAMJET, also called Advanced Technology Vehicle, is an engine that takes atmospheric oxygen to burn fuel instead of using fuel and oxidizer for the combustion to happen.

This technology reduces the overall weight of the rocket and increases efficiency, and thus it would be able to bring down costs of space launches.


According to The Times of India, the engine, used only during the atmospheric phase of a rocket’s flight, will help bring down launch costs by reducing the amount of oxidiser that needs to be carried along with fuel. It will eventually be used to power ISRO’s reusable launch vehicle (RLV) at hypersonic speed.

ISRO scientists said that the engine, by using atmospheric oxygen, will eventually reduce the weight of the vehicle during lift-off by more than half, enabling it to carry heavier payloads into orbit. The scramjet engine is ideally suited for launch vehicles moving at hypersonic speed.

How it works

Unlike conventional rocket engines which carry both fuel and oxidiser, the scramjet engine with its air-breathing propulsion system technology will forcefully compress atmospheric oxygen when the rocket is in supersonic speed. The atmospheric oxygen will act as an oxidiser to burn the fuel (liquid hydrogen) being carried.

Director of Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre K Sivan told TOI earlier that the experiment is important, as the engine will eventually be used in the RLV.

“The ignition of the engine, the building up of pressure and the duration for which the engine can sustain the flame will be tested and monitored,” he said. “The main concern is igniting the air-breathing engine in the air and then sustaining the flame at supersonic speed. If we can sustain it for five seconds, then it can last for even 1000 seconds.”

“It can be used in the ascent and descent of the RLV when the vehicle is in the atmospheric phase where oxygen would be available,” Sivan added.

While many countries like Japan, China, Russia and Europe are in the initial or testing phase of supersonic combustor technology , NASA demonstrated scramjet propulsion in 2004. ISRO had previously carried out a ground test of a scramjet engine in 2006.

Indian President Pranab Mukherjee has congratulated the space agency on the successful test.

“Hearty congratulations ISRO on successful test of futuristic scramjet rocket engine. India is proud of you,” he tweeted.

*Source; Xinhua and Times of India

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