WASHINGTON — The Air Force Research Laboratory has awarded propulsion systems startup Ursa Major a contract to develop a prototype of a new hypersonic engine, as well as to further develop a rocket engine for heavy space launch vehicles, the company said.
Under the contract, the Colorado-based firm will build and test a prototype of its new Draper engine for hypersonics, and further develop its 200,000-pound thrust Arroway engine for space launch.
The Draper engine is a 4,000-pound thrust closed cycle hydrogen peroxide engine designed for use in either hypersonic interceptors or aerial targets simulating adversary missiles, Joe Laurienti, Ursa Major’s founder and CEO, told Breaking Defense in an interview.
“This gets us through serious development on the engineering, hardware testing, integrated hotfire testing of the engine. It’s really exciting for a kind of a first of its kind, being being peroxide and kerosene, oxidizer and fuel, closed cycle, and really designed out of the gate for hypersonics,” he said.
Laurienti said while up to now the company’s focus is on hypersonics and aerial targets, there “likely” also will be applications for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions “for hypersonics in general.” And, he said, Draper would be “a great fit” because “it’s extremely low cost; it can be expendable or reusable” — although he stressed that the company has yet to discuss that idea with any Department of Defense offices.
Draper also could be used for space launch, Laurienti said.
An Ursa Major press release explains that AFRL’s interest in the engine includes its potential to “deliver assets rapidly and effectively to ‘high-energy orbits’ or ‘military-relevant orbits.’ Draper’s safe handling and storability leads to applications and maturation of responsive launch operations, including point-to-point delivery, quick mission planning, on-orbit servicing, fuel depots, global range and mobility, hypersonic systems, and survivable and responsive launches.”
That “storability,” Laurienti said, cuts down pre-launch logistics as other highly toxic liquid fuels often used to provide the high thrust needed for a missile to reach hypersonic speeds (Mach 5 and above) require special handling.
Under the AFRL contract, for which neither the lab or company provided a value, Ursa Major will also build a dedicated test stand for Draper and plans to hotfire the engine within 12 months.
Arroway, on the other hand, is a reusable liquid oxygen and methane staged combustion engine for medium and heavy launch vehicles. Ursa Major first announced development the 200,000-pound thrust engine last August, explaining that when clustered together, Arroway engines could replace the Russian-made RD-180 and RD-181, which are no longer available to US launch firms.
According to Ursa Major’s press release, the AFRL contract will allow further development of Arroway with a hotfire expected in 2025.
“Ursa Major continues to be an important partner to AFRL as we build hypersonics capabilities and remove America’s dependence on foreign propulsion systems for launch,” said Shawn Phillips, Chief of AFRL’s Rocket Propulsion Division in the release.
The new AFRL contract isn’t the company’s first with the lab. Last August, Ursa Major and AFRL announced a contract under the Air Force Tactical Funding Increase (TACFI) program to qualify the Hadley rocket engine for future Department of Defense missions. Hadley is a 5,000-pound thrust, oxygen-rich staged combustion engine.
On May 17, small-launch company Vector Launch announced that Ursa Major had completed acceptance testing of three Hadley 1st Stage engines for its Vector-R rocket. Vector Launch declared bankruptcy in 2019, but was reconstituted in 2020 under new ownership and with a focus on suborbital launch. Vector’s rockets are designed to launch from a mobile transporter erector launcher, or TEL, normally used for missiles.
What all Ursa Major’s engines have in common is that they all use 3D printing, and are reusable.
In addition, Laurienti said, Draper will use the same use the same production line, located in Berthoud, Colo., where the company has produced over 100 Hadley engines.
“Using a lot of the heritage from our Hadley engine, I think is really key here,” he said, noting that the next step for Draper will be rapidly getting it into production.