SpaceX successfully tests new engine (VIDEO)

By Phil Plait | June 25, 2012 2:20 pm

SpaceX successfully launched the first privately owned rocket (Falcon 9) and space capsule (Dragon) to the International Space Station in May. The engine that propelled them there is called the Merlin, built by the company based on known technology and NASA heritage.

Several generations of Merlin engines have been made, and the newest, the 1D, was recently test fired in May at the SpaceX facility in Texas. This video of it is pretty darn cool. Turn the volume up!

The full firing was a bit over three minutes long. The 1D performed well by all accounts, and will be used for the first time next year on an upgraded version of the Falcon 9 rocket. The 1D has the highest thrust-to-weight ratio of any engine of its kind ever used, meaning it produces a lot of bang for its weight.

There will be two versions of this engine: one to be used on the first stage of the Falcon 9, and designed for use in air, and another for the second stage, to be used in a vacuum. The exhaust from an engine behaves differently in air (where the pressure of surrounding air changes the way the exhaust expands) versus in a vacuum, so different designs can be used to optimize the thrust. These will be used on the upgraded Falcon 9 as well as the in-production Falcon Heavy rocket.

I’m even more interested in the proposed Merlin 2, which SpaceX claims will have 1.7 – 1.9 million pounds of thrust — more than the Saturn V F5 engines did! These will be used on a future generation Falcon heavy-lift rocket.

Image credit: SpaceX


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Space
MORE ABOUT: Merlin engine, SpaceX

Comments (34)

  1. Chris

    Don’t forget the marshmallows.

  2. Christopher

    WOW! Let’s go to Mars now!

    I wonder how they manage to hold the thruster still while igniting it. I remember seeing NASA tests where the engine was facing the ground to be sure it wouldn’t take off.

  3. BJN

    What’s the dark plume from the small nozzle? Exhaust gas from a fuel pump system?

    The big Saturn engines are F-1 according to the intertubes:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F-1_%28rocket_engine%29

  4. Paul

    What’s the dark plume from the small nozzle? Exhaust gas from a fuel pump system?

    Yes. It’s fuel rich (to keep the temperature down), so it has a lot of soot.

    In flight, the exhaust from the gas generator is used to provide roll control on the second stage, which only has one engine.

  5. ellindsey

    The small side nozzle is the exhaust from the kerosine-burning turbopump. The Saturn F-1 had a similar turbopump, but in that engine the turbopump exhaust was injected into the main nozzle to provide some cooling and insulation of the nozzle walls.

  6. David

    Love how clean the engine looks — a minimum of parts. Of course, the big pumps are probably hidden above, but a simpler design is almost always better especially when building something intended for production use rather than just a prototype.

  7. Tom K

    It looks like the dark plume is water for the sound suppression system. In that case its probably not actually part of the engine, just there for the test.

  8. David C.

    The Super Dracos are even cooler ;-) when ever I see them I think of the Eagle from Space: 1999 ;D

  9. Sili

    Thanks, Paul. I was about to ask that too.

    –o–

    I recall seeing years ago (Discovery Channel) a programme about Russian engines, which were supposed the best ever built, but the fall of the USSR meant that they were never put into general use.

    Am I making stuff up? And if not, what happened to that technology?

  10. rocket.doc

    @Sili: It’s hard to define “best”, but the Russian engines you’re referring to are oxygen-rich staged combustion engines (most Russian engines ran that way) as opposed to the pressure-fed systems we use in the U.S. That provides a higher specific impulse (Isp). The engines are the RD-180, and having been purchased by Pratt & Whitney, are used on the first stage of the Atlas V. Aerojet also purchased a number of NK-33 engines (according to wikipedia the highest thrust to weight engines ever produced, and wikipedia is never wrong) which are being examined for various uses, including an Orbital Sciences launch vehicle

  11. KAE

    Maybe I’m just a space geek, but I’d sit through the full 3 minute video. :D Have to see if I can find it online somewhere…

  12. Isaac

    Sili, the RD-170 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RD-170_(rocket_engine) is the most powerful multi-chamber rocket engine ever built. It was intended for the Energia launch vehicle, but that was canceled. Descendents of the RD-170 live on, however, in the Russian Angara rocket family, which is currently in development.

    The F-1 on the Saturn V is still the most powerful single-chamber rocket engine ever. It was also extremely reliable. Engineers tested it by feeding bolts through the fuel injectors, and setting off bombs in the combustion chamber.

    I’m looking forward to what SpaceX comes up with. That Merlin 2 engine could be supremely awesome.

  13. Chris R

    I’m curious about how they build this kind of test chamber. That’s a ridiculous amount of thrust to hold out against for three minutes.

  14. Ricky

    I’m surprised the building didn’t launch into space.

  15. Tycho

    As cool as the burn is I find the whole structure fascinating i.e. how they keep the whole thing nailed down and, if I’m seeing it right, how they keep all that water moving underneath it. Awesome engineering is awesome.

  16. Peter B

    Chris R @ #9 said: “I’m curious about how they build this kind of test chamber. That’s a ridiculous amount of thrust to hold out against for three minutes.”

    And

    Ricky @ #10 said: “I’m surprised the building didn’t launch into space.”

    Well, keep in mind the thrust of the rocket is 147,000 pounds, or about 67 metric tons. If the building weighs more than that, then it isn’t going anywhere, assuming they sticky-taped the engine down properly. And presumably for that they attached it in the way it’d be attached to the rocket.

  17. Peter B

    If you look at the footage from side-on from about 25 seconds in, you can see little flickers of black popping below the engine bell. If I’ve got it right, they’re patches of less fully burned fuel, which suggest slight unevenness in combustion. I assume they’d prefer they weren’t there, but I’m no expert on these matters. It just goes to show how tricky these beasts can be to tame. All the same, it’s impressive viewing.

    Compare it with footage of the F1 engines on the Saturn V, where there’s a continuous skirt of black extending below the nozzle. In that case it was caused by the fuel pump exhaust (which was fuel rich and relatively cool) being deliberately used to cool the engine bell.

  18. Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    And just the other week the SuperDraco was used to test a Dragon LES escape burn (@ elon musks twitter).

    Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho
    It’s off to L-E-O
    Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho, Heigh-ho

    @ Sili:

    NK-33 Saturn V equivalents:

    “They were intended for the ill-fated Soviet N-1 rocket moon shot. The NK-33 engine achieves the highest thrust-to-weight ratio of any Earth-launchable rocket engine, whilst achieving a very high specific impulse. NK-33 is by many measures the highest performance LOX/Kerosene rocket engine ever created.[1]”

    About 150 engines survived, and in the mid-1990s, Russia sold 36 engines to Aerojet General for $1.1 million each. This company also acquired a license for the production of new engines.

    Supplied through Aerojet, three of the engines were incorporated into Japanese rockets J-1 and J-2. The US company Kistler Aerospace worked on incorporating these engines into a new rocket design, with which Kistler sought to eventually offer commercial launch services, before declaring bankruptcy. In Russia, N1 engines were not used again until 2004, when the remaining 70 or so engines were incorporated into a new rocket design. As of 2005, the project has been frozen due to the lack of funding. The current design of Orbital Science’s Antares launch vehicle includes two NK-33s as the first stage engines.”

  19. Grand Lunar

    “I’m even more interested in the proposed Merlin 2, which SpaceX claims will have 1.7 – 1.9 million pounds of thrust — more than the Saturn V F5 engines did!”

    I’d love to see the Merlin 2 as well, and hope SpaceX makes it happen.
    For now, it’s great to see Merlin 1D come to life.

    And Phil, you need a correction: Saturn V’s engines were called F-1, NOT F-5.

  20. Dashukta

    My wife’s folks live in Waco, a touch over half an hour along Highway 84 from McGregor, TX where SpaceX has their facility.

    One night, not that long ago, while we were visiting, we heard a deep, throaty rumbling in the distance and a faint glow on the western horizon. My mother-in-law casually mentioned that she read in the paper SpaceX was planning a test for that night. Something about the temperature of a low altitude air-mass reflected the sound, making it sound louder in Waco than it would have otherwise (or something like that, I think that’s what the one meteorologist on TV said)

    The fun part was the next day when the local news affiliates were all agog, and doing “viewer feedback” of all the local reactions of people caught by surprise. My mother-in-law reacted to this coverage by grumbling that “they announced it several times.”

  21. Joseph G

    @#10 Sili: I recall seeing years ago (Discovery Channel) a programme about Russian engines, which were supposed the best ever built, but the fall of the USSR meant that they were never put into general use.

    I believe that’d be the RD-170, which was developed for the Energia launcher. They “cheated” just a smidge, as each engine has four combustion chambers, but they’re all fed by a single pump and plumbing system, so it still counts as a record-settingly-powerful ‘single’ engine ;)

    Awhile ago I wrote a little piece on the Energia/Buran program – click here to read it! It’s not very technical and is more an overview of Energia/Buran in general, but you might find it interesting if you’re a space geek like me :)

  22. Gunnar

    Awesome video! It stirs memories of when I was in the USAF, newly married and stationed at Edwards AFB. The Air Force Rocket Propulsion Laboratory (AFRPL) is part of Edwards AFB and located about 15 miles from the main base where I worked, and the F-1 engines were still under development at the time and being tested there. Whenever they tested an F-1 engine, we could easily hear it in the office building where I worked, 15 miles away!

    We lived, at first, in Boron CA, which is just across the highway from the AFRPL installation, located on a hill no more than a couple of miles or so away, and we could easily see it from our residence. Sometimes they would do a test at night. The noise was incredible, and the whole sky seemed to light up like a giant, inverted, glowing bowl–similar to descriptions I have read by people who witnessed a nighttime Saturn 5, Apollo launch!

  23. Gunnar

    @Joseph G:

    Thanks so much for that interesting article about the Energia/Buran program! It was very well written, as well as being a fascinating read!

  24. Kent

    That’s cool !

    Got me wondering about previous rocket engine tests . . . for instance, at 2m:40s in the following video, what is all that other action besides the engines themselves : sparks going horizontally, other streams firing across the test zone, etc. – I’ve always wondered about that. Perhaps sometime you could do a little write-up on what goes on with a rocket engine ?

    NASA Space Shuttle – “Best of Launches”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mjrpuG2HOuI&feature=related

  25. Gary Ansorge

    I’m really a fan of more exotic means of getting a large space craft off the ground, like a mag lev launcher or Leik Myrabos Light craft concept. Once in orbit, we can use extremely high specific impulse engines. The nuclear salt water thrusters have an ISP around 10,000 vs 450 for a liquid H2 and lox engine. Some of the ion thrusters we’ve built are better than that but they’re not able to provide high acceleration, which would be necessary for lunar landings and such.

    The only problem with space elevators is that first, we have to actually BE in space to build them and second, they take so long (over a week) to get to geo sync orbit.

    I guess we’re stuck with these primitive chemical rockets for a while longer. I’ll tolerate nearly anything to get humans off this planet.

    Gary 7

  26. Joseph G

    @24 Gunnar: Thanks so much for that interesting article about the Energia/Buran program! It was very well written, as well as being a fascinating read!

    Thanks!!! That’s very nice to hear. I wrote it for a website that accepts reader submissions covering various odd and interesting topics. Unfortunately, I never heard back from them :(

  27. Jay29

    Holy f$%&! No wonder we can put things in orbit — that’s freaking powerful!

  28. Blargh

    Did they really have to name it “Merlin”? Sometimes name collisions are unavoidable, but in that case you at least pick something that isn’t in the same field (in this case: aerospace, and possibly the most famous aircraft engine ever – the Rolls-Royce Merlin)…

  29. puppygod

    I always thought that choice of the name was intentional – as a homage paid to the aforementioned Rolls-Royce Merlin.

    Re-using names is a long standing tradition in aerospace industry. How many, for example, lightnings do we have?

  30. Peter B

    Kent @ #25 asked: “…at 2m:40s in the following video, what is all that other action besides the engines themselves : sparks going horizontally, other streams firing across the test zone, etc. – I’ve always wondered about that.”

    Regarding the spray of sparks, according to Wikipedia: “At T-minus 10 seconds, hydrogen igniters were activated under each engine bell to quell the stagnant gas inside the cones before ignition. Failure to burn these gases could trip the onboard sensors and create the possibility of an overpressure and explosion of the vehicle during the firing phase.”

    I’m not sure what you mean by the “other streams firing across the test zone”.

  31. Peter B

    Kent @ #25: Okay, regarding the white smoke blasting downwards from a pipe at the rim of each engine bell, I’m still not sure. It’s certainly likely to be a very cold vapour, based on what appears to be a block of ice at the end of the pipe which disappears soon after the engines ignite. So that means it’s probably either liquid oxygen, liquid hydrogen or liquid helium vapourising on contact with the relatively warm air. And given the fact that the sparks don’t suddenly burn more vigorously on hitting the vapour, I’m guessing it’s helium.

    However, I’m happy to be corrected by someone who knows what they’re talking about.

  32. Jared

    > I’m really a fan of more exotic means of getting a large space craft off the ground

    You’d be a big fan of the Launch Loop, then.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Launch_loop

  33. I think this is really cool, and I’m glad to see SpaceX making advances. That being said, the SpaceX PR campaign is disingenuous, and on the edge of lying, from a technical perspective.

    They state that the engine has “An enhanced design makes the Merlin 1D the most efficient booster engine ever built”

    Now, they explicitly state that they mean it has the best thrust-to-weight ratio. Sure, nice. But this isn’t how the industry measures efficiency, we use ISP (specific impulse). ISP is basically telling you how much impulse the engine gives you per weight of propellant. This value is independent of the mass of the engine or rocket, which is what makes it a better measure of efficiency. A great thrust-to-weight ratio doesn’t do you all that good if the propellant tank guys at SpaceX design a sloppy heavy tank system, for instance. But a great ISP is a great ISP.

    I’m disappointed in SpaceX, at least their PR wing, for pushing a technically inaccurate statement that their engine is “the most efficient booster engine ever built”. And I’m disappointed that the media and bloggers are happily repeating it like all the engineers at SpaceX are geniuses.

    Congrats to SpaceX on the engine test and on their recent successes, but please reign in the propaganda and conduct yourselves like engineers, not pitchmen.

    Thanks,
    – Ben H.
    Mission Control, TX

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