A University of Central Florida researcher has received NASA funding to further develop a novel rocket engine system that could revolutionize space travel.

The project focuses on rotating detonation rocket engines (RDREs), which are powered by continuous Mach 5 explosions that rotate around the inside of the engine and are sustained by hydrogen and oxygen propellants fed into the system in certain amounts. NASA recently awarded $50,000 to fund the project.

Mach 5 explosions create bursts of energy that travel 4,500 to 5,600 miles per hour, which is more than five times the speed of sound.

By using these high-energy detonations, more energy can be generated with less fuel, improving engine efficiency and cutting down space travel costs and emissions.

Kareem Ahmed, the lead researcher of the project and associate professor in UCF’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, has been researching RDREs for years. Ahmed and his team have already published a study with evidence that this type of engine works and are using the NASA award to work on an RDRE replacement for the RL10 engine, which currently powers many space flights including the upcoming Artemis missions.

“We have demonstrated the technology, now it is time for the development,” Ahmed says.

rotating detonation rocket engine thrust propulsion testing is shown
Thrust propulsion testing and characterization of the UCF rotating detonation rocket engine is shown in this photo. Credit: UCF

RL10 engine variants are used in many launchers such as the Atlas V, Vulcan, and Orbital ATK OmegA. Seeing as the U.S. government is the largest user of launch services in the world, advancing lower-cost, high-performance RDRE technology will lead to significant cost savings, Ahmed says.

RDREs could also be used for commercial purposes, facilitating new markets such as widespread satellite-based high-speed internet services due to reduced launch costs. Multiple federal agencies such as NASA, the Department of Defense, the National Reconnaissance Office, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration depend on satellites for their basic functions.

If expanded to other transportation methods like planes, RDREs could even allow for coast-to-coast travel in under thirty minutes and five-minute flights from New York to London.

The project was one of twelve proposals selected for NASA’s 2022 M-STTR grant, which seeks to promote partnerships between Minority-Serving Institutions and small businesses in preparation for them to send proposals to NASA’s annual STTR Phase I solicitation. Ahmed and his team partnered with small business Creare LLC as well as Halo LLC with Aerojet Rocketdyne for the technology transition.

Ahmed earned his doctoral degree in mechanical engineering from the University at Buffalo – The State University of New York. He worked at Pratt & Whitney Military Engines and Old Dominion University prior to joining UCF’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, part of UCF’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, in 2015. He is the director of UCF’s Propulsion and Energy Research Laboratory, a faculty member of UCF’s Center for Advanced Turbomachinery and Energy Research, an associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, and an AFRL Faculty Research Fellow.