Single-Stage-to-Orbit: The Launch Technology We Wish Was Real

Reaching orbit around Earth is an incredibly difficult feat. It’s a common misconception that getting into orbit just involves getting very high above the ground — the real trick is going sideways very, very fast. Thus far, the most viable way we’ve found to do this is with big, complicated multi-stage rockets that shed bits of themselves as they roar out of the atmosphere.

Single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) launch vehicles represent a revolutionary step in space travel. They promise a simpler, more cost-effective way to reach orbit compared to traditional multi-stage rockets. Today, we’ll explore the incredible potential offered by SSTO vehicles, and why building a practical example is all but impossible with our current technology.

A Balancing Act

The SSTO concept doesn’t describe any one single spacecraft design. Instead, it refers to any spacecraft that’s capable of achieving orbit using a single, unified propulsion system and without jettisoning any part of the vehicle.

The Saturn V shed multiple stages on its way up to orbit. That way, less fuel was needed to propel the final stage up to orbital velocity. Credit: NASA

Today’s orbital rockets shed stages as they expend fuel. There’s one major reason for this, and it’s referred to as the tyranny of the rocket equation. Fundamentally, a spacecraft needs to reach a certain velocity to attain orbit. Reaching that velocity from zero — i.e. when the rocket is sitting on the launchpad — requires a change in velocity, or delta-V. The rocket equation can be used to figure out how much fuel is required for a certain delta-V, and thus a desired orbit.

The problem is that the mass of fuel required scales exponentially with delta-V. If you want to go faster, you need more fuel. But then you need even more fuel again to carry the weight of that fuel, and so on. Plus, all that fuel needs a tank and structure to hold it, which makes things more difficult again.

Work out the maths of a potential SSTO design, and the required fuel to reach orbit ends up taking up almost all of the launch vehicle’s weight. There’s precious mass left over for the vehicle’s own structure, let alone any useful payload. This all comes down to the “mass fraction” of the rocket. A SSTO powered by even our most efficient chemical rocket engines would require that the vast majority of its mass be dedicated to propellants, with its structure and payload being tiny in comparison. Much of that is due to Earth’s nature. Our planet has a strong gravitational pull, and the minimum orbital velocity is quite high at about 7.4 kilometers per second or so.

Stage Fright

Historically, we’ve cheated the rocket equation through smart engineering. The trick with staged rockets is simple. They shed structure as the fuel burns away. There’s no need to keep hauling empty fuel tanks into orbit. By dropping empty tanks during flight, the remaining fuel on the rocket has to accelerate a smaller mass, and thus less fuel is required to get the final rocket and payload into its intended orbit.

The Space Shuttle sheds its boosters and external fuel tank on its way up to orbit, too. Credit: NASA

So far, staged rockets have been the only way for humanity to reach orbit. Saturn V had five stages, more modern rockets tend to have two or three. Even the Space Shuttle was a staged design: it shed its two booster rockets when they were empty, and did the same with its external liquid fuel tank.

But while staged launch vehicles can get the job done, it’s a wasteful way to fly. Imagine if every commercial flight required you to throw away three quarters of the airplane. While we’re learning to reuse discarded parts of orbital rockets, it’s still a difficult and costly exercise.

The core benefit of a SSTO launch vehicle would be its efficiency. By eliminating the need to discard stages during ascent, SSTO vehicles would reduce launch costs, streamline operations, and potentially increase the frequency of space missions.

Pushing the Envelope

It’s currently believed that building a SSTO vehicle using conventional chemical rocket technology is marginally possible. You’d need efficient rocket engines burning the right fuel, and a light rocket with almost no payload, but theoretically it could be done.

Ideally, though, you’d want a single-stage launch vehicle that could actually reach orbit with some useful payload. Be that a satellite, human astronauts, or some kind of science package. To date there have been several projects and proposals for SSTO launch vehicles, none of which have succeeded so far.

Lockheed explored a spaceplane concept called VentureStar, but it never came to fruition. Credit: NASA

One notable design was the proposed Skylon spacecraft from British company Reaction Engines Limited. Skylon was intended to operate as a reusable spaceplane fueled by hydrogen. It would take off from a runway, using wings to generate lift to help it to ascend to 85,000 feet. This improves fuel efficiency versus just pointing the launch vehicle straight up and fighting gravity with pure thrust alone. Plus, it would burn oxygen from the atmosphere on its way to that altitude, negating the need to carry heavy supplies of oxygen onboard.

Once at the appropriate altitude, it would switch to internal liquid oxygen tanks for the final acceleration phase up to orbital velocity. The design stretches back decades, to the earlier British HOTOL spaceplane project. Work continues on the proposed SABRE engine (Syngergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine) that would theoretically propel Skylon, though no concrete plans to build the spaceplane itself exist.

The hope was that efficient aerospike rocket engines would let the VentureStar reach orbit in a single stage.

Lockheed Martin also had the VentureStar spaceplane concept, which used an innovative “aerospike” rocket engine that maintained excellent efficiency across a wide altitude range. The company even built a scaled-down test craft called the X-33 to explore the ideas behind it. However, the program saw its funding slashed in the early 2000s, and development was halted.

McDonnell Douglas also had a crack at the idea in the early 1990s. The DC-X, also known as the Delta Clipper, was a prototype vertical takeoff and landing vehicle. At just 12 meters high and 4.1 meters in diameter, it was a one-third scale prototype for exploring SSTO-related technologies

It would take off vertically like a traditional rocket, and return to Earth nose-first before landing on its tail. The hope was that the combination of single-stage operation and this mission profile would provide extremely quick turnaround times for repeat launches, which was seen as a boon for potential military applications. While its technologies showed some promise, the project was eventually discontinued when a test vehicle caught fire after NASA took over the project.

McDonnell Douglas explored SSTO technologies with the Delta Clipper. Credit: Public domain

Ultimately, a viable SSTO launch vehicle that can carry a payload will likely be very different from the rockets we use today. Relying on wings to generate lift could help save fuel, and relying on air in the atmosphere would slash the weight of oxidizer that would have to be carried onboard.

However, it’s not as simple as just penning a spaceplane with an air-breathing engine and calling it done. No air breathing engine that exists can reach orbital velocity, so such a craft would need an additional rocket engine too, adding weight. Plus, it’s worth noting a reusable launch vehicle would also still require plenty of heat shielding to survive reentry. One could potentially build a non-reusable single-stage to orbit vehicle that simply stays in space, of course, but that would negate many of the tantalizing benefits of the whole concept.

Single-stage-to-orbit vehicles hold the promise of transforming how we access space by simplifying the architecture of launch vehicles and potentially reducing costs. While there are formidable technical hurdles to overcome, the ongoing advances in aerospace technology provide hope that SSTO could become a practical reality in the future. As technology marches forward in materials, rocketry, and aerospace engineering in general, the dream of a single-stage path to orbit remains a tantalizing future goal.


Featured Image: Skylon Concept Art, ESA/Reaction Engines Ltd

1D Fireworks Are Nice And Quiet

Maybe you do it out of respect for the dogs and parents of young children in the neighborhood. Or maybe you do it because they’re harmful to the environment, or just because it’s too darn cold outside. Whatever your reasoning for not setting off fireworks, don’t fret — you can probably put together your own silent one-dimensional “fireworks” display from what you’ve got in the parts bin.

[Daniel Westhof]’s design is simple, requiring little more than a Wemos D1 Mini and a strip of WS2812 LEDs. Once activated, a red rocket shoots up from the ground and detonates, sending lights in both directions on the strip to imitate the bombs bursting in air. It’s controlled with a small push button switch, and there’s a deliciously large red LED indicator that shows the thing is ready for detonation.

You might be surprised to find that there’s a wide array of 1D gaming and animation projects out there, many of which made possible by the ubiquitous addressable RGB LED strip. We’ve seen a dungeon crawler, at least two different versions of the classic PONG, and even the makings of a simplified Wolfenstein.

How To Land A Model Rocket Vertically

Perhaps most readers will remember when they saw the first SpaceX demonstration of a rocket stage landing vertically on the pad under control. It’s something of a shock to be reminded that their first suborbital demonstration “hops” were around a decade ago, and how quickly what was once so special has become commonplace. We’re now in the era of the more complex model rockets having the same capability, with [BPS.space] managing it last year, and now [TTS Aerospace] sharing a video showing how they achieved the same feat.

The basics of the system revolve around a directed rocket nozzle, but to make it work is a lot more complex than simply hooking up a flight controller and calling it good. The steps in arriving at a landable rocket are examined, with plenty of failures shown along the way. Even the legs are more complex than they might appear, having to combine lightness, ease of unfurling under the power of elastic, and enough strength and give to survive a rough landing.

Those of us from countries where model rocketry is a highly licensed activity can only look on in envy at these projects, and we look forward to seeing where this avenue leads next. We covered the [BPS.space] rocket last year, should you be interested.

Continue reading “How To Land A Model Rocket Vertically”

A 3D printed copper aerospike engine cutaway showing the intricate, organic-looking channels inside. It is vaguely reminiscent of a human torso and lungs.

3D Printed Aerospike Was Designed By AI

We’re still in the early days of generatively-designed objects, but when combined with the capabilities of 3D printing, we’re already seeing some interesting results. One example is this new copper aerospike engine. [via Fabbaloo]

A collaboration between startups Hyperganic (generative AI CAD) and AMCM (additive manufacturing), this 800 mm long aerospike engine may be the most complicated 3D print yet. It continues the exciting work being done with 3D printing for aerospace applications. The complicated geometries of rocket nozzles of any type let additive manufacturing really shine, so the combination of generative algorithms and 3D printed nozzles could result in some big leaps in coming years.

Aerospikes are interesting as their geometry isn’t pressure dependent like more typical bell-shaped rocket nozzles meaning you only need one engine for your entire flight profile instead of the traditional switching mid-flight. A linear aerospike engine was one of the main selling points for the cancelled VentureStar Space Shuttle replacement.

This isn’t the only generative design headed to space, and we’ve covered a few projects if you’re interested in building your own 3D printed rocket nozzles or aerospike engines. Just make sure you get clearance from your local aviation regulator before your project goes to space!

Thinking Inside The Box

Last week, I wrote about NASA’s technology demonstrator projects, and how they’ve been runaway successes – both the Mars rovers and the current copter came from such experimental beginnings. I argued that letting some spirit of experimentation into an organization like NASA is probably very fruitful from time to time.

And then a few days later, we saw SpaceX blow up a rocket and completely shred its launch platform in the process. Or maybe it was the other way around, because it looks like the concrete thrown up by the exhaust may have run into the engines, causing the damage that would lead to the vehicle spinning out of control. SpaceX was already working on an alternative launch pad using water-cooled steel, but it ran what it had. They’re calling the mission a success because of what they learned, but it’s clearly a qualified success. They’ll rebuild and try again.

In comparison, the other US-funded rocket run by Boeing, the SLS suffered years of delays, cost tremendous amounts of money, and has half the lift of SpaceX’s Super Heavy. But it made it to space. Science was done, many of the CubeSats onboard got launched, the unmanned capsule orbited the moon, and splashed down safely back on earth. They weren’t particularly taking any big risks, but they got the job done.

The lore around SpaceX is that they’re failing forward to success. And it’s certainly true that they’ve got their Falcon 9 platform down to a routine, at a lower cost per launch than was ever before possible, and that their pace has entirely shaken up the conservative space industry. They’ll probably get there with their Starship / Super Heavy too. SLS was an old-school rocket, and they had boring old flame diverters on their launch pad, which means that SLS will never take off from Mars. On the other hand, one of the two systems has put a payload around the Moon.

Maybe there’s something to be said for thinking inside the box from time to time as well?

The Intricacies Of Starting A Rocket Engine

Rockets are conceptually rather simple: you put the pointy bit upwards and make sure that the bit that will go flamey points downwards before starting the engine(s). Yet how to start each rocket engine type in a way that’s both safe and effective? Unlike in the Wile E. Coyote cartoons, real-life rocket engines do not have a fuse you light up before dashing off to a safe distance. Rather they use increasingly more complicated methods, which depend on the engine type and fuels used. In a recent article written by [] with accompanying video featuring everyone’s favorite Everyday Astronaut [Tim Dodd], we’re taken through the intricacies of how flamey ends are made. Continue reading “The Intricacies Of Starting A Rocket Engine”

Rocket Mounted 3D Printed Camera Wheel Tries, Succeeds, And Also Fails

[Joe] at BPS.space has a thing for rockets, and his latest quest is to build a rocket that will cross the Kármán Line and launch into the Final Frontier. And being the owner of a YouTube channel, he wants to have excellent on-board video that he can share. The trouble? Spinning. A spinning rocket is a stable rocket, especially as altitude increases. So how would [Joe] get stable video from a rocket spinning at several hundred degrees per second? That’s the question being addressed in the video below the break.

The de-spun video looks quite good

Rather than use processing power to stabilize video digitally, [Joe] decided to take a different approach: Cancelling out the spin with a motor, essentially making a camera-wielding reaction wheel that would stay oriented in one direction, no matter how fast the rocket itself is spinning.

Did it work? Yes… and no. The design was intended to be a proof of concept, and in that sense there was a lot of success and some excellent video was taken. But as with many proof of concept prototypes, the spinning camera module has a lot of room for improvement. [Joe] goes into some details about the changes he’ll be making for revision 2, including a different motor and some software improvements. We certainly look forward to seeing the progress!

To get a better idea of the problem that [Joe] is trying to solve, check out this 360 degree rocket cam that we featured a few years ago.

Continue reading “Rocket Mounted 3D Printed Camera Wheel Tries, Succeeds, And Also Fails”