The future of the U.S. space sector

The 32nd Space Symposium was held in Colorado Springs. It discussed, among other things, new space rocket technologies, especially in the context of the increasingly thriving private segment. Will the coming years bring a long awaited and much needed revolution in this field?

Crazy ventures in NASA’s budget

The U.S. space sector has found itself in quite a predicament, as launching satellites and resupplying the International Space Station is monopolized by United Launch Alliance (ULA), which is made up of Boeing (with its Delta family of rockets) and Lockheed Martin (with its Atlas family of rockets). Not only is it very expensive to use its services, but the U.S. Congress does not like it because the Atlas III and Atlas V launchers use Russian RD-180 engines.

Due to the high price of the propulsion units and the political situation, ULA must find its own engines and has until the end of 2019 to do so. At this point the private sector, represented by SpaceX, Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne, enters the game. The first two are not only developing their own reusable launchers, but also engines.

SpaceX seems to be leading the way, having already completed resupply flights to the International Space Station, and a modified Dragon capsule will soon be ready to board passengers. At the same time, the company is working on a reusable rocket that will drastically reduce the cost of flights to orbit. Of course, this will be a serious competition for ULA, but everyone sees benefits in it. It is a well-known fact that nothing affects progress more than competition.

ULA is not the only one facing competition. SpaceX is on the heels of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, which already has several successful launches and landings of reusable rockets. Hardly, the company is heavily involved in developing the BE-4 engine for ULA. Its unit is expected to be ready by the end of 2019 and unique because of its fuel – liquid oxygen and methane – which will generate 550,000 pounds of thrust. Liquid methane is not only cheaper, but also far less polluting to the engine.

A slightly more conventional type of rocket propulsion unit is being worked on by Aerojet Rocketdyne. The company says its AR1 engine, which uses typical rocket fuel, will be ready by the end of 2019. Analysts predict that its competition with Blue Origin will focus on the relationship: cost versus reliability. Aerojet Rocketdyne’s engine will certainly be more expensive to produce and operate, but it may prove more reliable. For now, however, this is pure speculation.

SpaceX is developing a craft called Raptor that will enable orbital flights and long-distance space travel. Like the BE-4, the engine will run on liquid oxygen and methane. There is even an announcement that it will work on Mars, because methane can be obtained from the raw materials available there. The prototype version should be ready by the end of 2018. So it can be assumed that the finished one will debut later than the competing AR1 and BE-4.

The symposium also addressed the topic of 3D printers in the construction of space rocket engines. SpaceX has already taken advantage of this innovative technology. In the Falcon 9 rocket we will find an element responsible for the flow of oxygen to the engine, which was made on a printer.

The company boasts that thanks to this it is much more durable and lighter. What’s more, it takes months to make it using classical methods, while using a printer – less than two days.

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