It Isn’t Rocket Science — Wait, Maybe It Is

We don’t know why, but for some reason, the more dangerous something is, the more hacker appeal it seems to have. We like to deal with high temperatures, high voltages, dangerous chemicals, and powerful lasers. So [Tech Ingredient’s] recent video about homemade rocket motors certainly caught our attention. You may need a little commitment, though. The first video (yes, there isn’t just one) is over an hour long.

Turns out, [Tech] doesn’t actually want to use the rockets for propulsion. He needed a source of highly-ionized high-velocity plasma to try to get more power from his magnetohydrodynamic project. Whatever you want to use it for, these are serious-sized motors. [Tech] claims that his design is both powerful and easy to build. He also has a “secret” rocket fuel that he shares. What is it? We won’t spoil the video for you, but it is a sweet surprise.

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Engine Trouble Delays SpaceX’s Return To The ISS

A crewed mission to the International Space Station that was set to depart from Kennedy Space Center on Halloween has been pushed back at least several weeks as NASA and SpaceX investigate an issue with the company’s Merlin rocket engine. But the problem in question wasn’t actually discovered on the booster that’s slated to carry the four new crew members up to the orbiting outpost. This story starts back on October 2nd, when the computer aboard a Falcon 9 set to carry a next-generation GPS III satellite into orbit for the US Space Force shut down the engines with just two seconds to go before liftoff.

The fact that SpaceX and NASA have decided to push back the launch of a different Falcon 9 is a clear indication that the issue isn’t limited to just one specific booster, and must be a problem with the design or construction of the Merlin engine itself. While both entities have been relatively tight lipped about the current situation, a Tweet from CEO Elon Musk made just hours after the GPS III abort hinted the problem was with the engine’s gas generator:

As we’ve discussed previously, the Merlin is what’s known as an “open cycle” rocket engine. In this classical design, which dates back to the German V-2 of WWII, the exhaust from what’s essentially a smaller and less efficient rocket engine is used to spin a turbine and generate the power required to pump the propellants into the main combustion chamber. Higher than expected pressure in the gas generator could lead to a catastrophic failure of the turbine it drives, so it’s no surprise that the Falcon 9’s onboard systems determined an abort was in order.

Grounding an entire fleet of rockets because a potentially serious fault has been discovered in one of them is a rational precaution, and has been done many times before. Engineers need time to investigate the issue and determine if changes must be made on the rest of the vehicles before they can safely return to flight. But that’s where things get interesting in this case.

SpaceX hasn’t grounded their entire fleet of Falcon 9 rockets. In fact, the company has flown several of them since the October 2nd launch abort. So why are only some of these boosters stuck in their hangers, while others are continuing to fly their scheduled missions?

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Masten Moon Rocket Has Landing Pad, Will Travel

Because of the architecture used for the Apollo missions, extended stays on the surface of the Moon weren’t possible. The spartan Lunar Module simply wasn’t large enough to support excursions of more than a few days in length, and even that would be pushing the edge of the envelope. But then the Apollo program was never intended to be anything more than a proof of concept, to demonstrate that humans could make a controlled landing on the Moon and return to Earth safely. It was always assumed that more detailed explorations would happen on later missions with more advanced equipment and spacecraft.

Now NASA hopes that’s finally going to happen in the 2020s as part of its Artemis program. These missions won’t just be sightseeing trips, the agency says they’re returning with the goal of building a sustainable infrastructure on and around our nearest celestial neighbor. With a space station in lunar orbit and a permanent outpost on the surface, personnel could be regularly shuttled between the Earth and Moon similar to how crew rotations are currently handled on the International Space Station.

Artemis lander concept

Naturally, there are quite a few technical challenges that need to be addressed before that can happen. A major one is finding ways to safely and accurately deliver multiple payloads to the lunar surface. Building a Moon outpost will be a lot harder if all of its principle modules land several kilometers away from each other, so NASA is partnering with commercial companies to develop crew and cargo vehicles that are capable of high precision landings.

But bringing them down accurately is only half the problem. The Apollo Lunar Module is by far the largest and heaviest object that humanity has ever landed on another celestial body, but it’s absolutely dwarfed by some of the vehicles and components that NASA is considering for the Artemis program. There’s a very real concern that the powerful rocket engines required to gracefully lower these massive craft to the lunar surface might kick up a dangerous cloud of high-velocity dust and debris. In extreme cases, the lander could even find itself touching down at the bottom of a freshly dug crater.

Of course, the logical solution is to build hardened landing pads around the Artemis Base Camp that can support these heavyweight vehicles. But that leads to something of a “Chicken and Egg” problem: how do you build a suitable landing pad if you can’t transport large amounts of material to the surface in the first place? There are a few different approaches being considered to solve this problem, but certainly one of the most interesting among them is the idea proposed by Masten Space Systems. Their experimental technique would allow a rocket engine to literally build its own landing pad by spraying molten aluminum as it approaches the lunar surface.

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Cortex 2 Is One Serious 3D Printed Experimental Rocket

Rocketry is wild, and [Foaly] is sharing build and design details of the Cortex 2 mini rocket which is entirely 3D printed. Don’t let that fool you into thinking it is in any way a gimmick; the Cortex 2 is a serious piece of engineering with some fascinating development.

Cortex 1 was launched as part of C’Space, an event allowing students to launch experimental rockets. Stuffed with sensors and entirely 3D printed, Cortex 1 flew well, but the parachute failed to deploy mainly due to an imperfectly bonded assembly. The hatch was recovered, but the rocket was lost. Lessons were learned, and Cortex 2 was drafted up before the end of the event.

Some of the changes included tweaking the shape and reducing weight, and the refinements also led to reducing the number of fins from four to three. The fins for Cortex 2 are also reinforced with carbon fiber inserts and are bolted on to the main body.

Here’s an interesting details: apparently keeping the original fins would result in a rocket that was “overstable”. We didn’t really realize that was a thing. The results of overstabilizing are similar to a PID loop where gain is too high, and overcorrection results in oscillations instead of a nice stable trajectory.

Cortex 2 uses a different rocket motor from its predecessor, which led to another interesting design issue. The new motor is similar to hobby solid rocket motors where a small explosive charge at the top of the motor blows some time after the fuel is gone. This charge is meant to eject a parachute, but the Cortex 2 is not designed to use this method, and so the gasses must be vented. [Foaly] was understandably not enthusiastic about venting hot gasses through the mostly-PLA rocket body. Instead, a cylindrical cartridge was designed that both encases the motor and redirects any gasses from the explosive charge out the rear of the rocket. That cartridge was SLA printed out of what looks to us like Formlabs’ High Tempurature Resin.

Finally, to address the reasons Cortex 1 crashed, the hatch and parachute were redesigned for better reliability. A servo takes care of activating the system, and a couple of reverse-polarity magnets assist in ensuring the hatch blows clear. There’s even a small servo that takes care of retracting the launch guide.

The rocket is only half built so far, but looks absolutely fantastic and we can’t wait to see more. It’s clear [Foaly] has a lot of experience and knowledge. After all, [Foaly] did convert a Makerbot printer into a CNC circuitboard engraver.

Retrotechtacular: The Saturn Propulsion System

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too”

When President Kennedy gave his famous speech in September 1962, the art of creating liquid-fueled rocket engines of any significant size was still in its relative infancy. All the rocketry and power plants of the Saturn series of rockets that would power the astronauts to the Moon were breaking entirely new ground, and such an ambitious target required significant plans to be laid. What is easy to forget from a platform of five decades of elapsed time is the scale of the task set for the NASA engineers of the early 1960s.

The video below the break is from 1962, concurrent with Kennedy’s speech, and it sets out the proposed development of the succession of rocket motors that would power the various parts of the Saturn family. We arrive at the famous F-1 engine that would carry the mighty Saturn 5 and start its passengers on their trip to the Moon at a very early stage in its development, after an introduction to liquid rocket engines from the most basic of first principles. We see rockets undergoing testing on the stand at NASA’s Huntsville, Alabama facility, along with rather superlative descriptions of their power and capabilities.

The whole production is very much in the spirit of the times, though unexpectedly it makes no mention whatsoever of the Space Race with the Soviet Union, whose own rocket program had put the first satellite and the first man into space, and which was also secretly aiming for the moon. It’s somewhat jarring to understand that the people in this video had little idea that such an ambitious program would be as successful as it became, or even that in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination the following year there would be such an effort to fulfill the aim set out in his speech to reach the moon within the decade.

The moon landings, and the events and technology that made them possible, are a subject of considerable fascination for our community. We must have covered innumerable stories about artifacts from the Apollo era in these pages, and no doubt more will continue to come our way in the future. Films like this one do not tell us quite the same story as does a real artifact, but their values lies in capturing the optimism of the time. Anything seemed possible in 1962, and those who lived through the decade were lucky enough to see this proven.

Fifty years from now, what burgeoning engineering efforts will we look back on?

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Trike With Water-Rocket Engine

Many of us made soda bottle rockets for science class. Some of us didn’t have that opportunity, and made them in the backyard because that’s what cool kids do. Water rockets work on the premise that if water is evacuated from one side of a container, the container will accelerate away from the evacuation point. Usually, this takes the form of a 2-liter bottle, a tire pump and some cardboard fins. [François Gissy] modified the design but not the principle for his water trike which reached 261 kph or 162mph.

Parts for the trike won’t be found in the average kitchen but many of them could be found in a motorcycle shop, except for the carbon fiber wrapped water tank. There wasn’t a throttle on this rocket, the clutch lever was modified to simply open the valve and let the rider hold on until the water ran out. The front brake seemed to be intact, thank goodness.

Powering vehicles in unconventional ways is always a treat to watch and [François Gissy]’s camera-studded trike is no exception. If you like your water rockets pointed skyward, check out this launch pad for STEM students and their water rockets. Of course, [Colin Furze] gets a shout-out for his jet-powered go-kart.

Thank you, [Itay], for the tip.

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Transparent Rocket Engine

Rocket engines are undeniably cool. Experiencing the roar, seeing the fire, and watching the rocket blast off into the sky… what else can you ask for? Well, for [NightHawkInLight], a transparent rocket body is the answer.

Based on previous work by [Applied Science], he uses an acrylic rod as the rocket body and as the fuel. Bring a flame into the acrylic, apply oxygen from a canister at the other end of the body and voilà! The rocket engine starts nicely, and even better, the intensity of the burn can be controlled via the amount of oxygen provided.
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