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The competition heats up: Sierra Nevada has successfully tested a new rocket engine, dubbed Vortex, specifically designed to fulfill a wide range of uses. From the press release:
These tests demonstrate the ability to transition use of different propellant combinations in the same core rocket engine design with slight changes to accommodate a specific combination of fuel and oxidizer, including propane and kerosene fuels with nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and liquid oxygen oxidizers. This latest development offers customers a suite of engines scalable to higher thrust levels and customer-selected fuel combinations from a single core rocket engine design. ORBITEC’s patented vortex rocket engines utilize a unique swirling propellant flow to naturally cool the engine walls, allowing for the development and manufacture of simpler, low-cost, light-weight and more robust rocket engine systems.
What strikes me about this is that, until SpaceX built its Merlin engine in the mid-2000s, it had been decades since the American aerospace industry had developed a new rocket engine. After the development of the shuttle’s main engines in the late 1970s nothing new was created for the rest of the 20th century. Since Merlin, however, we have seen a string of new engines from several different companies, suggesting that the new renaissance I wrote about back in 2005 is on-going and accelerating.