Orbitec’s Liquid Vortex Engine Notches First Successful Test Flight

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SAN FRANCISCO — Orbital Technologies Corp. (Orbitec) announced Oct. 25 the first successful flight test of its Vortex liquid rocket engine, which is designed to serve as a new upper stage for the medium- and heavy-lift rockets U.S. government agencies and commercial firms rely on to send satellites into orbit.

During an Oct. 20 test flight in Mojave, Calif., the Vortex engine was integrated in a P-15 Prospector rocket designed and built by Garvey Spacecraft Corp. of Long Beach, Calif., and California State University, Long Beach.

Madison, Wis.-based Orbitec has been developing key components of the new engine for more than a decade with approximately $24 million in Small Business Innovative Research grants and another $2 million in internal research and development money supplied by its own team, which includes Alliant Techsystems (ATK), Moog Space and Defense Group of East Aurora, N.Y., and Boeing Defense, Space and Security of St. Louis. The company is seeking to develop an upper-stage engine that is more powerful and less costly to operate than the Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne RL-10 engine, a venerable workhorse designed in the 1950s that continues to fly on United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets.

Orbitec and its teammates are developing variants of the Vortex engine, including a version offering 30,000 pounds of thrust to meet the requirements of the Advanced Upper Stage Engine Program (AUSEP), a joint NASA-U.S. Air Force initiative to identify alternatives to the upper-stage engines used in Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles as well as a candidate to provide in-space propulsion for the space agency’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and its heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System.

During the flight test performed before an audience of NASA, Air Force and industry officials, the rocket performed extremely well, Orbitec officials said. “I can’t see how it could have gone much better,” Orbitec President Tom Crabb told Space News. The test demonstrated the performance of the company’s patented engine design and other unique components including an acoustic igniter and lightweight composite nozzle extension supplied by ATK Aerospace of Salt Lake City, Utah. The Vortex engine is designed to reduce the cost and mass of liquid rockets while increasing their performance. “There is the potential for a whole new paradigm in the space area, much like what happened in the jet engine market 40 or 50 years ago when engines became much more reliable and less costly,” Crabb said Oct. 26.

Orbitec plans to conduct additional testing of the complete Vortex engine using a test stand at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland or NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi. That testing has not yet been scheduled, said Paul Zamprelli, Orbitec business director.

In September, Orbitec was awarded a NASA contract to continue its effort to develop new manufacturing techniques for upper-stage engine components as part of the Space Launch System Advanced Development program. Specifically, Orbitec’s work focuses on improving precision casting of components for regeneratively cooled thrust chambers, according to a Selection Statement for the Space Launch System Advanced Development NASA Research Announcement signed Sept. 20 by NASA Marshall Space Flight Center’s associate director, Dale Thomas.