Research & Development

Successful Aerospike Engine Static Fire Test, June 21, 2003

A team from California State University, Long Beach, in partnership with Garvey Spacecraft Corporation (GSC), successfully conducted a static fire test of a 1000 lbf ablative annular aerospike rocket engine in the Mojave desert on June 21, 2003 using LOX and ethanol. The engine ran successfully for the planned 4 seconds. The test also demonstrated the avionics architecture to be used in subsequent Prospector-3 flights as part of the development of a low cost thrust vector control system.

Static fire test movie #1 and movie #2 (courtesy of Richard Ornellas)

Note: the pieces "flying around" come from the particle boards placed to "protect" the concrete below the engine


Aerospike engine in operation

About aerospike engines

Unlike conventional rocket engines which are designed to operate optimally at a single altitude (and thus suffer losses at other operating conditions), aerospike engines offer the advantage of self compensation as the launch vehicle climbs through the atmosphere and provide improvements in propulsive efficiency when operating below design pressure when compared with conventional bell shaped nozzle. This technology would greatly benefit single stage to orbit (SSTO) vehicles, or vehicles which, like the Space Shuttle, operate with engines from sea-level to orbital velocity. Aerospike engines were investigated by Rocketdyne in the 1960's, and then again as part of the now defunct X-33 program. As part of the latter, Boeing Rocketdyne developed the RS-2200, a linear aerospike which was static fired several times. However, to date, no aerospike engine using liquid propellants is known to have powered a rocket in flight after more than four decades of research.

About this aerospike engine static fire test

The static fire test came a little more than a year after the static fire test of their first aerospike engine during which the plug failed after 200 ms. The new engine design was based on the previous one with modifications to address issues raised with the first one, such as the addition of a second ignition port. More importantly, the modified design incorporated a titanium rod running through the center of the graphite plug and isolated with RTV.

aerospike on stand

Aerospike engine mounted to test stand

Pressure and force data was collected during the test and will be posted as it becomes available.

aerospike ignition aerospike ignition aerospike ignition

From ignition to continuous operation

Key individuals

The key student contributors to this new engine were Stanley Baksi, "Pepe" Jose Ruiz, Jeff Hayes and Tae-Hoon Lim, who worked closely with Paul Skaar from the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department. GSC affiliates and other industry mentors also played a major role in the development, integration and testing of the engine, in particular Tom Mueller, John Garvey, John Engberg, David McCue, Chris Richins and Richard Ornellas without forgetting "Mike Novratil and family". Thank you also to Dave Crisalli and the Reaction Research Society for facilitating access to the Mojave Test Area.

key individuals

The team prior to static fire test

Pepe (Jose) and Cassie loading LOX supervised by Mike

Pepe (Jose) and Cassie loading LOX supervised by Mike

What's next?

The next steps in the project involve machining a new set of graphite parts in preparation for a launch onboard the previously flown Prospector-2 (P-2) vehicle. The graphite outer ring at the combustion chamber exit eroded too much to attain the 300 psi chamber pressure needed at take-off, and the center plug cracked after the test, probably due to the over pressure in the center slot for the titanium rod once chamber pressure decreased to ambient after engine shutoff. The objective is to machine these parts and integrate the engine into P-2 for an August launch which would mark the first powered flight of an aerospike engine using liquid propellants.

For additional information about either the CALVEIN project and/or the cooperative program between CSULB and Garvey Spacecraft Corporation, please contact the following project representatives:

  • Dr. Eric Besnard
  • Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Dept.
  • California State University, Long Beach
  • 1250 Bellflower Blvd Long Beach, CA 90840
  • Tel:(562) 985-5442
  • Fax:(562) 985-1669
  • John Garvey
  • Garvey Spacecraft Corporation
  • 389 Haines Avenue
  • Long Beach, CA 90840-1841
  • Tel:(562)-498-2984
  • Email: