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California State University, Long Beach

Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering (MAE)

Ignition Failure Mars Initial “Flight Test of Multi-Chamber Aerospike Engine”

A joint industry-academic team led by California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) with technical support from Garvey Spacecraft Corporation (GSC) conducted the initial flight test attempt of its advanced multi-chamber aerospike engine using the newly developed Prospector-10 (P-10) prototype vehicle on April 18, 2009. At lift-off, one of the ten thrusters failed to ignite and subsequently experienced a hard start, destroying it and puncturing the two adjacent thrusters. The resulting asymmetric thrust produced by the remaining seven thrusters still lifted the P-10 up the launch rail and but then caused it to enter into a sequence of severe end-over-end rotations, with the vehicle finally crashing after just six seconds of flight. The airframe was entirely destroyed but sufficient elements of the aerospike engine were recovered to conduct a definitive failure investigation. This post-flight effort was also aided by data collected from two wireless accelerometer payloads developed by University of Maine, Orono and the P-10's own telemetry system, both of which functioned nominally.

Despite the promise of improved performance, aerospike engines have yet to be used on any operational system, owing in large part to the fact that no flight data is available to characterize the interactions between airframe and engine, most notably in transonic, under-expanded flight conditions. The multi-chamber 1,300 lbf thrust LOX/ethanol aerospike engine was designed to address this need. It consisted of ten thrusters arranged around an annular plug nozzle. These thrusters featured ceramic matrix composite (CMC) thrust chambers manufactured by Hypertherm High Temperature Composites of Huntington Beach, CA to maintain a square 0.6 inch throat and rectangular nozzle constant during the burn. The plug itself was outfitted with a series of pressure sensors in order to obtain flight performance data to validate computational fluid dynamics (CFD) tools. The engine was integrated into a regulated-helium pressure-fed vehicle which featured flight data acquisition and telemetry systems. Vehicle structures were mostly made of carbon-epoxy composites, with expertise in design and manufacture provided by Frederick Courouble from Kernan and Courouble Yacht Design, Long Beach, CA. Sensors included an inertial measurement unit for trajectory determination, propulsion system pressure transducers, as well as multiple skin pressure sensors. The vehicle was designed to reach supersonic conditions at approximately 15,000 ft and burnout shortly thereafter, coasting to 25,000 ft before a 2-stage parachute recovery.

Much of the hardware was developed under an MDA grant that culminated in a vehicle static fire test in mid-2008, as documented in several publications, including M. Baker, A. Shibuya, D. Verma, C. Bostwick, P. Skaar, and E. Besnard, “Flight Test and Analysis of a Multi- Chamber Aerospike Engine,” AIAA Paper No. 2008-5289, July 2008. The follow-on flight test campaign was undertaken with funding from CSULB, GSC and the California NASA Space Grant Consortium.

A video of the flight can be found here.

For further information about the P-10 aerospike engine test and/or related GSC/CSULB launch vehicle research and development activities, please contact:

Eric Besnard
California State University Long Beach
John Garvey
Garvey Spacecraft Corporation
p-10 vehicle
P-10 vehicle with the 10-thruster aerospike engine
p-10 vehicle team
Prospector 10 vehicle team Final preparations for flight
p-10 final preperations
Final preparations for flight
p-10 close up
Close-up of the engine with igniters installed
p-10 lift off
Lift-off; the plume from the failed thruster is visible to the left while other thrusters perform nominally P-10 torquing off the rail
p-10 in flight
P-10 in flight
p-10 fire
Fire following the vehicle crash
p-10 remains 1
p-10 remains 2
Remains after the flight with the CMC thrust chambers still intact!
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