Self-eating rocket wins UK MoD support

An effort to develop a ‘self-eating’ rocket that burns its own structure as propellant has won £90,000 of financial support from the UK MoD’s Defence & Security Accelerator (DASA).   

self-eating rocket
The technology could be used to launch small payloads into space from UK sites. Image: fotoplot via stock.adobe.com

It is claimed that the autophage engine, which is being built at the Glasgow University’s James Watt School of Engineering – could be used to launch payloads from spaceports across the UK.

Autophage engines have already been test-fired by the Glasgow team using all-solid propellant. The new funding will underwrite the research required to use a more energetic hybrid propellant. The engine will be test-fired at Kingston University’s new rocket laboratory in London next year.

“The autophage concept is simple,” said Dr Patrick Harkness, of the James Watt School of Engineering, “burn the tanks as well. That saves the excess mass, and it means that we can miniaturise the vehicle without hitting this wall.”

Harkness explained that the body of a hybrid autophage rocket will be a tube of solid fuel, containing a liquid oxidiser. The entire assembly will be consumed, from the bottom up, by an engine which will vaporise the fuel tube, add the oxidiser, and burn the mixture to create thrust. The engine will have consumed the entire body of the rocket by the time the assembly reaches orbit, and only the payload will be left.

The technical development of the engine is being conducted by Krzysztof Bzdyk, who recently joined Glasgow University from NASA.

“The engine has to run hot enough to vaporise the fuel tube, but at the same time not destroy itself in service,” explained Bzgyk. “We will use the cold fuel tube coming into the engine as means of controlling temperature, in a process called regenerative cooling. But even so, the test article will have to be made of exotic materials, like tungsten and graphite, at least until we fully understand the temperatures inside.”

Harkness claimed that the technology holds great promise for launching small payloads from the UK, getting around the problem of sometimes having to wait years for a space on the kind of large rockets currently launched from the USA or Kazakhstan.

He added that demand for the types of launches opened up by the technology could reach as many as 3,000 a year by the middle of this decade – a potential global market value of £100m. “Smaller rockets like this, which could be launched from sites here in Britain, could be the key to unlocking that market. The UK has a strategic aim to secure 10 per cent of the worldwide space industry by 2030, and we believe that our autophage engine is uniquely well-placed to help deliver on that ambition. We’re looking forward to continuing our work to develop the engine and help the UK find its place in space.”