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Technical debrief and visit from space cadets

Published on:
August 10th 2020

Asterex arrived at our rocket shop last month. Since then we've spent late nights with Bernoulli, Torricelli, and Venturi - key people of fluid dynamics, or in less fancy terms - the best plumbers in human history. Our mission: Control fluids that dissolve a piece of copper in one single second, running at a pressure 20 times the force of water in a shower.

A solution would provide the world with its first unified space propulsion system.

Today all space systems use different engines and propellants for liftoff, space travel, and exo landings (Moon, Mars, asteroids). Asterex is the first rocket engine to provide a "unified" system  and to achieve this we need:

1. Storables (non-cryogenic propellants).
2. Black Magic (high pressure without turbopumps).

Cryogenic propellants kick better than Storables. This is partly compensated for by higher density (smaller tanks, less weight) but only a higher chamber pressure will allow storable propellants to fully compete with the cryosystems in terms of punch.

Most small launch vehicles operate at 2-3 MPa. Rocket Lab at the high-end produces 5 MPa chamber pressure. We build for twice that - 10 MPa - as far as we know never achieved for our class. Hot tests usually make waves, ours could be extra.

This is also why Asterex is so small: The higher the pressure level, the smaller the engine size. The engine was inspired by the most successful spaceship in history - the Apollo lunar lander. Apollo engines were manufactured in Inconel, the exact same material in our own engine now sitting at our office. Except ours is 3D printed.

The Apollo engines only had 1 MPa pressure; Black Magic will raise that with a magnitude. Together with our rapid manufacturing engineers we may have found a way to 3d print also those components (digital tools and machine parks are developing fast).

The majority of rocket failures (lately Astra, Virgin) involve valves and fuel lines in one way or another, indicating plumbing is perhaps the hardest part of rocket engineering. Asterex high pressure increases the demands on valve construction and actuation (shutoff valves remotely closed and opened within 10th of a second).

The challenge is to design an actuator producing enough torque and speed without adding too much weight. Tests this coming fall.

In other news - Visit from Space Cadets (a k a Spaceforce 2.0)

The city called and asked could we host some 30 kids enrolled in a local science summer camp. The space cadets showed up and we had a brief in front of the bay:

"Ask before you touch." With that out of the way: "Touch everything," we handwaved, "heck, even the engine."

They took full control of the shop. Rode our skateboards, played table tennis, inspected seashells over in the lab, inquired if bombs (preferably nuclear) could be mounted on Eiger, and will we bring weapons to Mars?

They turned the blackboard into art. At an age when we couldn't tell our right leg from the left; these little wizards drew rovers and satellites - riding in different orbits to boot.

One kid, maybe 7, grabbed Tom from a far corner and dragged him to the board where he had penned a schematic of our engine cluster and noted ’55 mph’. “Will we make it to Space in 1 hour at that speed?" he wanted to know. We realized too late that nobody had signed an NDA.

Over by the Estes rockets, a little girl, maybe 8, started folding a parachute perfectly. And "of course" she knew Inconel. "What will happen with the rocket shop when you go to Mars?" she inquired. "Will it close?" We hadn't thought of that.

Afterward, back at the bay, we ran a brief survey.

Q: How many want to go to space?

70% of hands came up.

Q: Why?

(Girl, maybe 7): Because it’s INCREDIBLE.

Not all were on board: "Why does a rocket engine look like a coffee cup," asked a little guy. "I wanted to go to Space until I realized it would have to be on coffee cups."

They got into the practicals: How long did that one take to build, and that one? How long for a Moon mission, how long to go to Mars.

Finally, we asked, "anyone wants a job here?"

90% raised hands. Well, "how much do you charge?" said Tom.

Offers started at $50 per hour but came down quickly to $1, until someone cried out, “I'll take what I get!”

Unfortunately, nobody could actually show up for work Monday at 7 am, due to other commitments.

Space Cadets - Unofficial Trailer

Tina Sjogren
Tina Sjogren
CEO & Founder
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Material scientists learning from nature. Painting by Joseph Wright of Derby: The Alchemist discovering phosphorus in search of the philosopher's stone.