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SpaceX rocket engine family

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Title: SpaceX rocket engine family  
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SpaceX rocket engine family

Making a SpaceX Merlin 1D engine. The shiny nozzle here has channels etched vertically in it for the fuel to run down and back up, keeping the nozzle from melting during use. 2012 photo by Steve Jurvetson.

Since the founding of SpaceX in 2002, the company has developed three families of rocket enginesMerlin, Kestrel, and Draco — and is currently developing two more rocket engines: SuperDraco and Raptor.


In the first ten years of SpaceX, the company has developed a variety of liquid-propellant rocket engines, with at least one more of that type under development in late 2012. As of October 2012, each of the engines developed to date—Kestrel, Merlin 1, Draco and Super Draco—have been developed for initial use in the SpaceX Falcon family of launch vehiclesFalcon 1, Falcon 9, and Falcon Heavy—or for the Dragon capsule. Each main engine to date has been Kerosene-based, using RP-1 as the fuel with liquid oxygen (LOX) as the oxidizer, while the RCS control thruster engines have used storable hypergolic propellants.

In November 2012, at a meeting of the Royal Aeronautical Society in London, United Kingdom, SpaceX announced that they plan to develop methane-based engines for their future rockets. These engines will use staged cycle combustion, for higher efficiency similar to the system used on the former Soviet Union's NK-33 engine.[1]

Kerosene-based engines

SpaceX has developed two Kerosene-based engines through 2012, the Merlin 1 and Kestrel, and has publicly discussed a much larger concept engine high-level design named Merlin 2. Merlin 1 powers the first stage of the Falcon 1 launch vehicle as well as both the first and second stages of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy launch vehicles, as well as the experimental technology-demonstrator Grasshopper VTVL rocket. The Falcon 1 second stage is powered by a Kestrel engine.

Merlin 1

Merlin 1 is a family of LOX/RP-1 rocket engines developed 2003-2012. Merlin 1A and Merlin 1B utilized an ablatively cooled carbon fiber composite nozzle. Merlin 1A produced 340 kilonewtons (76,000 lbf) of thrust and was used to power the first stage of the first two Falcon 1 flights in 2006 and 2007. Merlin 1B had somewhat more powerful turbopump and more thrust but was not flown on a flight vehicle prior to SpaceX moving on to the Merlin 1C.

The Merlin 1C uses a regeneratively cooled nozzle and combustion chamber. It was first fired with a full mission duty firing 2007,[2] first flew on the third Falcon 1 mission in August 2008,[3] powered the "first privately-developed liquid-fueled rocket to successfully reach orbit", Falcon 1 Flight 4, in September 2008,[3] and subsequently powered the first five Falcon 9 flights—each flown with a version 1.0 Falcon 9 launch vehicle—in 2010–2013.[4]

The Merlin 1D, was in development in 2011-2012, also with a regeneratively cooled nozzle and combustion chamber, has a vacuum thrust of 690 kN (155,000 lbf), a vacuum specific impulse (Isp) of 310 s, an increased expansion ratio of 16 (as opposed to the previous 14.5 of the Merlin 1C) and chamber pressure of 9.7 MPa (1,410 psi). A new feature for the engine is the ability to throttle from 100% to 70%.[5] The engine's 150:1 thrust-to-weight ratio is the highest ever achieved for a rocket engine.[6][7] The first flight of the Merlin 1D engine was also the maiden Falcon 9 v1.1 flight.[8] On 29 September 2013, the Falcon 9 Flight 6 mission successfully launched the Canadian Space Agency's CASSIOPE satellite into polar orbit, and proved that the Merlin 1D could be restarted to control the first stage's re-entry back into the atmosphere—part of the SpaceX reusable launch system flight test program—a necessary step in making the rocket reusable.[9]


Kestrel was a LOX/RP-1 pressure-fed rocket engine, and was developed by SpaceX as the Falcon 1 rocket's second stage main engine. It was built around the same pintle architecture as SpaceX's Merlin engine but does not have a turbo-pump, and is fed only by tank pressure. Its nozzle was ablatively cooled in the chamber and throat and radiatively cooled, and is fabricated from a high strength niobium alloy. Thrust vector control is provided by electro-mechanical actuators on the engine dome for pitch and yaw. Roll control – and attitude control during the coast phase – is provided by helium cold gas thrusters.[10][11]

Merlin 2 engine concept

At the AIAA Joint Propulsion conference on July 30, 2010 SpaceX McGregor rocket development facility director Tom Markusic shared some information from the initial stages of planning for a new engine. SpaceX’s Merlin 2 LOX/RP-1-fueled engine on a gas generator cycle, capable of a projected 7,600 kN (1,700,000 lbf) of thrust at sea level and 8,500 kN (1,920,000 lbf) in a vacuum and would provide the power for conceptual super-heavy-lift launch vehicles from SpaceX, which Markusic dubbed Falcon X and Falcon XX. Such a capability would result in an engine with more thrust than the F-1 engines used on the Saturn V.[5] At the time, the Merlin 2 concept was illustrated on a series of conceptual single-core and multi-core large launch vehicles, and it was stated that the Merlin 2 "could be qualified in three years for $1 billion".[12] By mid-August, the SpaceX CEO Elon Musk clarified that while the Merlin 2 engine architecture was a key element of any effort SpaceX would make toward their objective of "super-heavy lift" launch vehicles—and that SpaceX did indeed want to "move toward super heavy lift"—the specific potential design configurations of the particular launch vehicles shown by Markusic at the propulsion conference were merely conceptual "brainstorming ideas", just a "bunch of ideas for discussion."[13] Markusic left the company soon thereafter, amidst much speculation about the previously disclosed material.[14]

Methane-based engines

In November 2012, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk announced a new direction for propulsion side of the company: developing methane/LOX rocket engines.[1] SpaceX work on methane/LOX (methalox) engines is strictly to support the company's Mars technology development program. They have no plans to build an upper stage engine for the Falcon 9 or Falcon Heavy using methalox propellant.[15] The focus of the new engine development program is exclusively on the full-size Raptor engine for the Mars-focused mission.[15]


Raptor is a methane/liquid oxygen rocket engine under development by SpaceX since the late 2000s,[1] although LH2/LOX propellant mix was originally under study when the Raptor concept development work began in 2009.[16] When first mentioned by SpaceX in 2009, the term "Raptor" was applied exclusively to an upper stage engine concept.[1] SpaceX discussed in October 2013 that they intend to build a family of methane-based Raptor rocket engines,[17] initially announcing that the engine would achieve 2.94 meganewtons (661,000 lbf) vacuum thrust.[17] In February 2014, they announced that Raptor would be used on both a new upper stage as well as for the very large 10-meter-diameter launch vehicle of the Mars Colonial Transporter. Each booster core will utilize nine Raptor engines, similar to the use of nine Merlin 1s on each Falcon 9 booster core.[14] The following month, SpaceX confirmed that as of March 2014, all Raptor development work is exclusively on this single very large rocket engine, and that no smaller Raptor engines are in the current development mix.[15]

The Raptor methane/LOX engine will use a highly efficient and theoretically more reliable full-flow staged combustion cycle,[14] a departure from the open gas generator cycle system and LOX/kerosene propellants used on the current Merlin 1 engine series.[1] As of February 2014, Raptor is being designed to produce 4.4 meganewtons (1,000,000 lbf) of thrust with a vacuum specific impulse (Isp) of 363 seconds and a sea-level Isp of 321 seconds.[14][18]

Initial component-level testing of Raptor technology is expected to begin in May 2014. The first item to be tested will be a single Raptor injector element.[19][17]

Raptor's full-flow staged combustion cycle will pass 100 percent of the oxidizer (with a low-fuel ratio) to power the oxygen turbine pump, and 100 percent of the fuel (with a low-oxygen ratio) to power the methane turbine pump. Both streams—oxidizer and fuel—will be completely in the gas phase before they enter the combustion chamber. Prior to 2014, only two full-flow staged combustion rocket engines have ever progressed sufficiently to be tested on test stands: the Soviet RD-270 project in the 1960s and the Aerojet Rocketdyne Integrated powerhead demonstration project in the mid-2000s.[14]

Other characteristics of the full-flow design are projected to further increase performance or reliability, with the possibility to do design trade offs of one against the other:[14]

  • eliminating the fuel-oxidizer turbine interseal which is traditionally a point of failure in modern chemical rocket engines
  • lower pressures are required through the pumping system, increasing life span and further reducing risk of catastrophic failure
  • ability to increase the combustion chamber pressure, thereby either increasing overall performance, or "by using cooler gases, providing the same performance as a standard staged combustion engine but with much less stress on materials, thus significantly reducing material fatigue or [engine] weight."[14]

Hypergolic engines


Draco are hypergolic liquid-propellant rocket engines that utilize a mixture of monomethyl hydrazine fuel and nitrogen tetroxide oxidizer. Each Draco thruster generates 400 newtons (90 lbf) of thrust.[20] They are used as Reaction Control System (RCS) thrusters on both the Dragon spacecraft, and on the Falcon 9 launch vehicle second-stage.[21]


SuperDraco storable-propellant hypergolic engines generate 67,000 newtons (15,000 lbf) of thrust, making the SuperDraco the second most powerful engine developed by SpaceX, more than 200 times[22] more powerful than the regular Draco RCS thruster engines. By comparison, it is more than two times as powerful as the Kestrel engine used in SpaceX's Falcon 1 launch vehicle second stage, and about 1/9 the thrust of a Merlin 1D engine. They will be used as Launch Abort System engines on the version 2 Dragon spacecraft, Dragon V2, for crew transport to low-Earth orbit, as well as entry, descent and landing control of the proposed Red Dragon robotic probe to Mars.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Todd, David (2012-11-22). "SpaceX’s Mars rocket to be methane-fuelled". FlightGlobal (UK). Archived from the original on 2014-01-10. Retrieved 2014-01-10. 
  2. ^ Whitesides, Loretta Hidalgo (2007-11-12). "SpaceX Completes Development of Rocket Engine for Falcon 1 and 9". Wired. Archived from the original on 2014-01-12. 
  3. ^ a b Clark, Stephen (2008-09-28). "Sweet Success at Last for Falcon 1 Rocket". Spaceflight Now. Archived from the original on 2014-01-10. Retrieved 2011-04-06. 
  4. ^ Klotz, Irene (2013-09-06). "Musk Says SpaceX Being "Extremely Paranoid" as It Readies for Falcon 9’s California Debut". Space News. Retrieved 2013-09-13. 
  5. ^ a b "SpaceX Unveils Plans To Be World’s Top Rocket Maker". Aviation Week and Space Technology. 2011-08-11. Archived from the original on 2014-01-12. Retrieved 2012-10-11. (subscription required)
  6. ^ Chaikin, Andrew (January 2012). "Is SpaceX changing the rocket equation? 1 visionary + 3 launchers + 1,500 employees = ?". Air & Space Magazine (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution). Archived from the original on 2014-01-12. Retrieved 2012-11-13. 
  7. ^ "Spacex's Merlin 1D Engine Achieves Full Mission Duration Firing". SpaceX. June 25, 2012. 
  8. ^ Rosenberg, Zach (2012-03-16). "SpaceX readies upgraded engines". Flightglobal. Archived from the original on 2014-01-10. Retrieved 2012-03-17. 
  9. ^ Wall, Mike (2013-10-17). "SpaceX Hit Huge Reusable Rocket Milestone with Falcon 9 Test Flight". (New York). Archived from the original on 2014-01-10. Retrieved 2014-01-10. 
  10. ^ Zsidisin, Greg (2007-03-23). "SpaceX Confirms Stage Bump On Demoflight 2". Space Daily. Archived from the original on 2014-01-12. Retrieved 2008-09-30. 
  11. ^ Wade, Mark (2014). "Kerstrel". Encyclopedia Astronautica. Archived from the original on 2014-01-12. Retrieved 2014-01-12. 
  12. ^ SpaceX Unveils Heavy-Lift Vehicle Plan, Aviation Week, 2010-08-05, accessed 2010-08-16.
  13. ^ "Exploration Musk Clarifies SpaceX Position On Exploration". Aviation & Space Week. 2010-08-11. Retrieved 2010-08-16. (subscription required)
  14. ^ a b c d e f g Belluscio, Alejandro G. (2014-03-07). "SpaceX advances drive for Mars rocket via Raptor power". Retrieved 2014-03-08. 
  15. ^ a b c Gwynne Shotwell (2014-03-21). Broadcast 2212: Special Edition, interview with Gwynne Shotwell (mp3) (audio file). The Space Show. Event occurs at 26:25–27:10. 2212. Archived from the original on 2014-03-22. Retrieved 2014-03-22. 
  16. ^ "Long term SpaceX vehicle plans". Retrieved 2009-07-13. 
  17. ^ a b c Leone, Dan (2013-10-25). "SpaceX Could Begin Testing Methane-fueled Engine at Stennis Next Year". Space News. Archived from the original on 2014-01-10. Retrieved 2013-10-26. 
  18. ^ "SpaceX propulsion chief elevates crowd in Santa Barbara". Pacific Business Times. 19 February 2014. Retrieved 22 February 2014. 
  19. ^ , 22 April 2014The Sacramento BeeSpaceX to test methane rocket engine in Miss.,
  20. ^ "SpaceX Updates — December 10, 2007".  
  21. ^ "Falcon 9 Launch Vehicle Payload User’s Guide, 2009". SpaceX. 2009. Retrieved 2013-03-08. 
  22. ^ "SpaceX Test Fires Engine Prototype for Astronaut Escape System".  

External links

  • SpaceX Tour - Engines, 11 Nov 2010.
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