At the end of July, the U.S. Air Force awarded a $3.9 million contract to Madison-based Orbitec for its program to develop and commercialize a vortex rocket engine.
Similar in concept to a vacuum cleaner or a tornado, the engine utilizes two concentric vortices -- an inner fuel mixing and combustion vortex and an outer one serving as heat insulation -- that would ultimately make cheaper, lighter, and reusable launch vehicles more possible. In the midst of a multi-year process to develop the engine, the company is now conducting hot testing of a small-scale vortex combustion chamber.
The brief video of the test firing follows below.
More formally known as Orbital Technologies Corp. and based on the far west side of Madison, Orbitec could potentially receive up to $24.9 million in funding through 2011 to develop the technology. An article from Defense Industry Daily reports that the engine is "part of the US Air Force integrated high payoff rocket propulsion technology program, and the space-based infrared system III (SBIRS III) program will attempt to integrate vortex engine propulsion technology with state-of-the art tank and feed system technology to demonstrate a cohesive universal small launch vehicle capability."
There are more details in Orbitec's summary and abstract for complete rocketry system, which is describes as a Advanced Vortex Hybrid Rocket Engine (or AVHRE). In terms of applications for NASA, the company suggests the engine could be used for "reusable and expendable launch vehicles, sounding rockets, and upper stage propulsion systems." More interesting are the potential military and commercial applications for the rocket engine:
AVHRE is expected to have application to reusable and expendable launch vehicles, sounding rockets, and upper stage propulsion systems. This technology is closely related to ORBITEC's vortex combustion cold-wall (VCCW) chamber technology for liquid bi-propellant applications, and has the potential to significantly improve liquid rocket lifetime, reusability, and thrust-to-weight ratio. Potential military applications include: kinetic energy boost-phase interceptors, high-speed and/or high altitude target drones, and cruise missile propulsion. A new market is also emerging to provide suborbital launch vehicles for space tourists as well as the entertainment market for amusement rides and rocket car demonstrations at air shows.
Two other videos of the test process conducted at the former home of the Badger Army Ammunition Plant in Baraboo are also online, including a look at "cold flow test results" using a blue dye to identify the inner vortex, and another showing a cold flow test cell that uses water under high pressure. More information about the next generation space program and technology is available in a press release from the University of Tennessee Space Institute (a research contractor for Orbitec) and in a Wisconsin Technology Network report about the funding.