REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala -- Consider the Space Shuttle. It combined liquid fuel main engines with solid rocket boosters. America's military has plenty of missiles and almost all of them are powered by solid rocket motors, but what if there was a hybrid available? A rocket motor that used solid and liquid fuel to combine for combustion. At Redstone Arsenal's Space And Missile Defense Command engineers are researching just such a motor. It uses liquid oxygen and a surprising solid fuel.
"It's made out of ABS plastic. Think LEGOS, and one of the great things about hybrid materials, it's safe to handle and it still gives good performance," said Mathew Hitt, an Engineer at SMDC.
Don't get too excited, because this new hybrid rocket motor fuel isn't ready for prime time yet. The research is what they call "pure" research.
"Pretty much everything started out as pure research. Like the radio. It was just understanding how electromagnetic waves work. How do they transmit? And the next thing you know it's a society built on it," said Hitt.
Pure research at SMDC's Concept Analysis Lab can and does include building a satellite out of off-the-shelf components. It will be tested on the international space station. As far as the hybrid rocket motor goes, being able to research it required some scientific progress.
"This particular configuration of hybrid motors was looked at 20-years ago and put on the shelf because it wasn't practical to make it," said Hitt.
It became practical with the advent of 3-D printing. Additive engineering as it's called is already being used to make all sorts of things. The solid fuel for the rocket motor has a complex configuration and it took 3-D printing to make it possible and practical. Still though, it's for research purposes.
"Pure research is really valuable, whether it works or not. It provides you with information that this is promising. Let's do more, or this isn't promising, let's do something else," said Hitt.
The results of the research may or may not have a future, but it is research that other labs, other military organizations might use in the future. That of course, is the reason to do the research in the first place.