Skip to main content

‘Impossible’ propulsion system will allow rockets to travel farther than ever

In what could, semi-punningly, be described as a slow burn, investigators at the University of Central Florida have demonstrated a groundbreaking new “impossible” rocket propulsion system researchers have been unsuccessfully exploring since the 1960s.

It is believed that the system — referred to as a rotating detonation rocket engine — will allow upper stage rockets to be able to travel farther and burn more cleanly.

“The rocket propulsion system is based on detonations — controlled violent explosions on the order of exploding stars — that offer significant improvements, including higher performance and thrust, lower cost, and smaller sized engines,” Kareem Ahmed, an assistant professor in UCF’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering who led the research, told Digital Trends. “It is difficult because the operation of the engine is based on harnessing these controlled explosions that travel ultrafast at Mach 5 and above.”

In the new rocket system, the rotating Mach 5 explosion detonations are continuous, sustained by feeding in hydrogen and oxygen propellants in exactly the right quantities. Getting the quantities wrong would result in the fuel slowly burning, rather than detonating. This is the challenge that has previously faced researchers, who struggled to find the right way to mix the necessary chemical propellants.

Full plume UCF
University of Central Florida

Get it all right, though, and the results are impressive. Mach 5 explosions create bursts of energy that travel at upward of five times the speed of sound. The detonations are contained in an engine body made of copper and brass. The system means that more power is generated while using less fuel than regular rockets. This means lightening the rocket’s overall load, which can also reduce costs.

So far, the research has remained strictly ground-based, performed at UCF’s Propulsion and Energy Research Laboratory. The work has been supported by funding from the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research. But don’t expect it to stay Earthbound forever — although it may still be a while before a completed rocket with this propulsion system makes it to the stars.

“We are going through a strategic path forward for technological development,” Ahmed said. “The U.S. Air Force is targeting … a rocket launch flight test by 2025, which we are contributing to.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the journal Combustion and Flame.

Editors' Recommendations

Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
Robot crushes man to death after mistaking him for a box
A smart factory concept.

A robot crushed a man to death after apparently mistaking him for a box, South Korean media reported.

The tragedy occurred on Wednesday evening local time at a vegetable sorting facility in South Gyeongsang province about 150 miles south of Seoul, according to the BBC.

Read more
Amazon expands Fresh grocery delivery for non-Prime members
A person delivery an Amazon Fresh order to a customer's home.

Amazon is expanding its Fresh grocery deliveries to non-Prime members nationwide.

The company started offering the service to non-Prime members in 12 cities in August, but on Thursday, Amazon said it was expanding to locations across the country.

Read more
UFC PPV: How much is the UFC 295 PPV?
A UFC championship belt sitting on a table.

MMA fans are getting treated to a big UFC event tomorrow: UFC 295, which will see Jiří Procházka take on Alex Pereira, and since it's a pay-per-view, you'll need to hand over some cash to tune in. ESPN+ is the only outlet for streaming live UFC pay-per-view events like these in the United States, so if you're looking for a way to enjoy all the action online, read on. We've got everything you need to know about UFC pay-per-views on ESPN+, including how to sign up, how much it costs, and how you can save.

ESPN+ is a premium streaming service for all things sports, from MMA and boxing to soccer and much, much more. Since launching its streaming platform in 2018, ESPN has continued to develop a very close relationship with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and in 2023, ESPN+ is the go-to app for streaming UFC content. It's also the only outlet where you can watch UFC pay-per-view events online. ESPN+ is compatible with virtually all modern PC web browsers and streaming-capable devices, which includes smartphones, tablets, smart TVs, and Xbox and PlayStation gaming consoles.

Read more