Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Why Merlin 2?

SpaceX does not need to design and qualify a third, much bigger, engine in order to become a profitable launch company, or to take over payloads intended for the Shuttle, or to fly people to either ISS or a Bigelow hotel. SpaceX should concentrate on execution, development of parallel staging (Falcon 9S9), and on a regeneratively cooled Merlin. Execution includes things like recovery of first stages and getting to one launch per month, with at least one or two Falcon 9 launches each year.

In this context, a regenerative Merlin 1 (hereafter refered to as Merlin 1x) may make sense because it may improve safety, reliability, and operational costs, and the cost of those improvements may be realistically amortized over dozens of launches. As the engine cycle is more efficient, a small increase in Isp and perhaps thrust is likely.

So why Merlin 2?

Elon keeps saying that Merlin 2 will be the biggest single thrust chamber around, but smaller than the F-1. Presumably, he is implying that it will have less total thrust than existing multiple thrust chamber engines, in particular the RS-180 (2 chambers, 4152 kN). That puts a fairly tight bound on the size. Here's a list of the biggest current engines, by thrust per chamber.

Enginethrust per chamberIspVehicle
F-17740 kN265 - 304Saturn V
RS-683312 kN365 - 420Delta IV
RS-242278 kN363 - 453Space shuttle
RD-1802076 kN311 - 338Atlas V
RD-1711976 kN309 - 337Zenit
NK-331638 kN297 - 331N-1/Kistler
Vulcain 21300 kN318 - 434Ariane 5

Taking Elon at his word, Merlin 2 will have between 3312 and 4152 kN of thrust. Call it 4000 kN, 17% more than the Falcon 9 first stage.

What can SpaceX do with this engine that cannot be done with the Merlin 1B?

Improve Falcon 9 LEO lift to 11000 kg. That's not even close to lifting stranded Space Shuttle payloads, which is the largest obvious market in terms of LEO mass in the next four years. I'm not sure what payloads are enabled by a 9300 to 11000 kg capability improvement.

Cost-reduce the Falcon 9. I can't see how this can pay for development, unless the Falcon 9 is launching monthly by 2010. And a further (fractional) price decrease doesn't seem like it would stimulate the market any more in the near-term than the existing, bold, price statement.

Improve Falcon 9S9 LEO lift to 30000 kg. The promised Falcon 9S9 lift capacity (24750 kg to LEO) is almost exactly that of the Shuttle (24400 kg to LEO), but the shuttle payload bay supports its payload better. The additional weight of a frame inside the 9S9 fairing might make some Shuttle cargoes too heavy to lift. A Merlin 2 based first stage for the Falcon 9S9 would fix this. The trouble is, a modest increase in thrust from the Merlin 1x would also fix the same problem. And it seems the latter change would have to be less costly than a whole new engine.

If the Falcon 9S9, improved with either Merlin 1x or Merlin 2s in the first stage, took over a dozen Shuttle ISS launches, I can imagine that would be a high enough flight rate to pay for Merlin 2 development. The trouble is that if I were paying to lift a billion-dollar ISS segment, I'd prefer to go on a machine with engine-out capability at launch. Three Merlin 2s don't give you that capability, and 4 implies some kind of vehicle (and its development cost) other than a Falcon 9S9 with single Merlin 2s on the first stages.

Build a 100,000+ kg to LEO launcher. This is what you get if you want engine-out capability with Merlin 2s. This kind of capacity is not necessary for exploring the solar system with robot probes, or even for building big orbital telescopes. It makes sense only if you want to send people a long way for a long time. Elon Musk passionately wants to build this rocket, that's why it's called the BFR.

The only organization with any credibility talking about using such heavy launches is NASA, for use in sending people to the Moon and maybe Mars. The BFR is Elon Musk's statement that he wants to take over the U.S. manned space program's launches. The business case for Merlin 2 and BFR must fundamentally rely on the U.S. government privatizing a critical, and the most public, portion of the manned space program. A program which from its outset has been about national pride.

A more likely scenario is that NASA will spend billions developing its own HLLV in competition with SpaceX, in the process abandoning the Space Station and strangling SpaceX, and will end up being able to afford just two or three launches to the Moon before abandoning VSE for the next thing. The history of heavy launchers is not reassuring. The Saturn V (118,000 kg to LEO, $2.2B per launch in 2004 dollars) was launched 13 times. Energia (85,000 kg to LEO, $1.4B per launch) was launched twice.

If all this sounds dire, a more reassuring comparison can be made by considering what SpaceX intends the Merlin 2-based vehicle to cost. Mr. Musk has stated several times that the point is to get costs below $1000/kg. A 100,000-kg-to-LEO vehicle priced at $500/kg would be $50M per launch. The history of $50M launchers is much more attractive. The various Delta incarnations (~1300/kg to LEO, ~$50M per launch) were launched hundreds of times. Soyuz (7200/kg to LEO, $45M per launch) has been launched 714 times.

A big rocket at such prices would clamp Falcon 9S9 prices to $30M and also reduce the 9S9 flight rate, at which point the parallel-staged rocket might cost too much to fly profitably. So SpaceX faces a fork in the road: develop either the Merlin 2 or parallel staging, but not both. Parallel staging will cost less to develop, implement, and support, and the BFR will cost more but enable people to get out of low earth orbit, and perhaps convert the VSE from a boondoggle into a success.

And thus we get to the vision thing. Elon has at various times stated that SpaceX is out to make money, and at other times stated that the goal of SpaceX is to enable the colonization of space. Let me point out that you can make money first, and enable colonization second, but not the other way around.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Catapult Gain

The Chair Force Engineer doesn't think much of a catapult start for rockets. His point is that if your catapult gets the rocket going fast horizontally, it just makes the max Q problem and drag losses worse.

As the rocket accelerates, the dynamic pressure on the front of the craft gets larger, until it gains enough altitude and vertical velocity that the atmospheric density drops faster than the velocity component rises. The maximum pressure experienced is max Q. Max Q is a problem because that drag turns the rocket's forward velocity into heat, which the structure has to deal with somehow, usually with a thin layer of ablatives on the nose.

A study done at UC Davis, A Study of Air Launch Methods for RLVs looked at dropping the rocket from an airplane, as is done for the Pegasus and SpaceShipOne rockets. They found that the high starting altitude helped, as did releasing the rocket with some significant vertical velocity component.

The thing that air launch and (vertical) catapults have in common is they both allow the rocket to delay fighting gravity.

As I pointed out in an earlier post, a rocket coming vertically off a launch pad is losing nearly all of its delta-V to gravity losses. Later on in the flight, once a good bit of propellant has been burned off and the acceleration has improved, a much smaller portion of the delta-V is lost to gravity. Note that the total vertical impulse required is a function of the time spent getting to orbital velocity, and is insensitive to the actual flight path.

The situation is much different for a rocket firing horizontally. Delta-V expended horizontally adds to the rocket's final velocity regardless of what the current acceleration is. Unfortunately, horizontal velocity added early in the flight adds a lot of drag loss.

So to minimize gravity losses, the rocket should start out firing at least somewhat horizontally, losing vertical velocity, and only later recover that vertical velocity. There is some limit to this pattern, since too much horizontal velocity too low in the atmosphere will exacerbate drag losses, and since we don't want the rocket to smack into the ground. Starting at high altitude helps, as does starting with some vertical velocity.

This leads to a concept I'll call "catapult gain", because I haven't read about it and don't know what it's really called. If I start the rocket off with a couple hundred m/s of vertical velocity, I increase the velocity at first stage burnout by more than the initial velocity boost, for two reasons. First, the gravity losses are lower, since the rocket can postpone some of its vertical impulse to when it is more efficient. Second, the first stage rocket can start out with more gas in the tanks, burn longer, and deliver more delta-V, because it doesn't have to have positive vertical acceleration right from the start.

Catapult gain is limited to the first few hundred m/s of velocity. The first effect is limited because we're reducing gravity losses, and increasing drag losses. There is only so much gravity loss to be mined, and drag losses rachet up quickly. The second effect is limited for the same reason that upper stage minimum accelerations are limited: eventually the extra delta-V is stretched over so much time that the gravity losses start to overcome all the extra delta-V. More starting velocity is always good, of course, but the point is that it reverts to a gain of one. To give a rough idea of catapult gain, some spreadsheet calculations indicate that a 250 m/s jump reduces the upper stage delta-V requirements of a SpaceX Falcon 9 by 500 m/s, for a catapult gain of two. Lest that seem small, note that it would allow the dead weight of the upper stage to increase by around 18%, and I'd guess the payload would increase by at least twice that.

So now that I've established a motivation for a vertical catapult, let me suggest one: a steam rocket. This is a very big bottle of very hot water at very high pressure, which partially flashes to steam as it exits. It has really crappy specific impulse (about 50 seconds), but can produce really large amounts of thrust very cheaply. For a Falcon 9 stage 0, it would be an 80 tonne steel tank (HY 100, safety factor 1.5) holding 400 tonnes of water, starting at 300 degrees C and 86 bar. The thing would produce around 26 MN of thrust for about 7.5 seconds, boosting the Falcon to 280 m/s. A 25 meter pipe, inserted up the throat of the nozzle, would add another 40 m/s by acting as the piston in a cylinder, allowing the Falcon to react against the Earth instead of mere propellants.

Let me point out how simple this system is. It has no moving parts on the vehicle, no flight-operational valves, no sequencers. The nozzle is bolted down onto a seal while the water in the tank is heated (pumped through an external heat exchanger). Fire the explosive bolts and it goes. There are no gimbals, and no guidance system. The LOX-Kero first stage is started while on the pad, and fires directly onto the top of the tank, which being solid steel backed by water is unaffected. The interstage is a truss which the engines fire through. There is no recovery system: the thing sails through the air for about a minute, coasting up to 4 kilometers high, and then comes crashing down into the sea, where it eventually resurfaces, nozzle down, until it's dragged back to shore. If we wanted to be sure it doesn't sink, we could inflate a balloon inside the casing, which would passively inflate as the internal pressure dropped during boost, and would require no pyrotechnics or interface of any kind. The exhaust is hot water and steam, has mild overpressure, requires no water suppression, nor cleaning of nasty chemicals afterwards. I will guess that the tank and nozzle can be built for $500k. Fuel costs for heating it up are about $10k, so an extensive program of test-firings with dummy rockets atop would be cheap.

I recommend tilting the launch pad slightly to ensure that the thing comes down in the ocean and not back onto the pad.

The thing vents 53 tonnes of propellant per second, which is orders of magnitude more than any chemical rocket ever built, and will produce a singular launch spectacle. So long as pictures of parboiled parrots can be avoided, the PR value alone should be immense. As a side benefit it should allow the Falcon 9S9 to put more payload into orbit than a Delta IV Heavy, and maybe enough more than the Shuttle to allow it to lift Shuttle ISS cargoes with an added strongback.

EDIT NOTE: In an earlier version of this post I claimed a doubling of throw weight. Math error. That's what I get for posting after midnight.