Japan Tests Explosion-Powered Rocket for the First Time in Space, Is a Success

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has announced that it has successfully demonstrated the operation of a rocket engine technology for the first time in space. This experiment proved the efficiency of a rotating detonation engine (RDE) which converted the shock waves generated when a mixture of fuel and oxygen reacts explosively into thrust.

An RDE works by using a form of pressure gain combustion in which one or more detonations go around an annular channel in a continuous loop. Through computational models and experiments, the RDE has been demonstrated to have great potential in transportation.

Now, JAXA has successfully demonstrated that it can also have potential in deep space exploration. By creating detonation and compression waves at extremely high frequencies (1 to 100 kHz), the detonation engine greatly enhances reaction speed, reducing the weight of the rocket engine and allowing it to generate thrust more efficiently, further boosting its performance.

This new engine system was installed on the No. 31 vehicles of the S-520 sounding rocket series operated by the Institute of Space and Astronautical Science. The rocket took off from JAXA Uchinoura Space Center on July 27th at 5:30 JST. 

The rotary detonation engine produced about 500 N (369 lbf) of thrust once the first stage was separated, which is only a fraction of what conventional rocket engines can achieve in space.

The success of this space flight demonstration experiment has substantially enhanced the chances of the RDE being used in practical applications, including in rocket motors for deep space exploration, first-stage, and two-stage engines, and more.

In the future, JAXA plans to apply detonation engine technology not only for deep space exploration missions but for other scientific operations as well. Reducing the size and weight of spacecraft systems could thus significantly aid interplanetary journeys.
But JAXA is not the only agency working to develop detonation engine tech. Several U.S. organizations are also working on RDEs. The U.S. Navy is particularly interested in RDE’s capability to reduce the fuel consumption in their heavy vehicles.

In May 2020, a group of U.S. Air Force engineers claimed to have created a highly experimental functioning model of RDE capable of delivering 200 lbf (about 271 N) of thrust by using a hydrogen/oxygen fuel mix.

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