UCF researcher receives NASA award for developing breakthrough rocket engine technology

A University of Central Florida researcher has received funding from NASA to develop a new rocket engine system that could revolutionize space travel.

The project focuses on Rotary Detonation Rocket Engines (RDREs), which are powered by continuous Mach 5 explosions that revolve around the inside of the engine and are fueled by hydrogen and oxygen propellants introduced into the system in certain quantities. NASA recently awarded $50,000 to fund the project.

Mach 5 explosions create bursts of energy that travel 4,500 to 5,600 miles per hour, more than five times the speed of sound.

By using these high-energy detonations, more energy can be generated with less fuel, improving engine efficiency and reducing space travel costs and emissions.

Kareem Ahmed, the project’s principal investigator and associate professor in UCF’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, has been researching RDREs for years. Ahmed and his team have already published a study showing that this type of engine works and are using the NASA award to work on an RDRE replacement for the RL10 engine, which currently powers many spaceflights, including upcoming Artemis missions.

“We have demonstrated the technology, now it’s time for development,” says Ahmed.

a thrust propulsion test of a rotary detonation rocket engine is shown
Thrust propulsion testing and characterization of the UCF Rotary Detonation Rocket Engine is shown in this photo. Credit: UCF

RL10 engine variants are used in many launch vehicles such as Atlas V, Vulcan and Orbital ATK OmegA. Since the U.S. government is the largest user of launch services in the world, advancing high-performance, lower-cost RDRE technology will result in significant cost savings, Ahmed said.

RDREs could also be used for commercial purposes, facilitating new markets such as large-scale satellite broadband Internet services due to reduced start-up costs. Several federal agencies such as NASA, the Department of Defense, the National Reconnaissance Office and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration depend on satellites for their basic functions.

If extended to other forms of transportation like airplanes, RDREs could even enable trips from coast to coast in less than thirty minutes and five-minute flights from New York to London.

The project was one of twelve proposals selected for NASA’s 2022 M-STTR grant, which seeks to promote partnerships between minority-serving institutions and small businesses to prepare them to submit proposals to the solicitation. annual NASA STTR Phase I. Ahmed and his team have partnered with small business Creare LLC as well as Halo LLC with Aerojet Rocketdyne for the technology transition.

Ahmed earned his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from the University at Buffalo – The State University of New York. He worked at Pratt & Whitney Military Engines and Old Dominion University before joining UCF’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, part of UCF’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, in 2015. He is director of the UCF Propulsion and Energy Research Laboratory, a faculty member of UCF’s Center for Advanced Turbomachinery and Energy Research, an associate member of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and a research fellow at the AFRL faculty.

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