Flame Photography Discerns Peculiarity in Ramjet Ignition

Amid pictures of dazzling auroras and satellite passes, pictures of a flame may seem boring in comparison. However, a Chinese team’s recent photography of flames igniting in a high speed engine (Technical note, AIAA Journal of Propulsion and Power) captured an unexpected result.

Hiding their cameras behind a quartz window and taking pictures at a rate of 10,000 frames per second, the team photographed how a flame ignites in subsonic and supersonic conditions. Understanding combustion at different speeds is important to developing efficient ramjets and scramjets, which react atmospheric air with a fuel to accelerate the next generation of supersonic airplanes and space-planes. Despite our computing power, our knowledge of how air reacts in these high-speed, high temperature environments is limited. More insight into how flames ignite in this intense environment can lead to better ramjets and scramjets in the future.

Ramjets and scramjets use an inlet to swallow air at high speeds, which the engines mix with fuel and then ignite to provide thrust. The primary difference between a ramjet and scramjet is the speed at which the mix is ignited; ramjets combust at subsonic speeds and scramjets ignite at supersonic speeds. The fuel-to-air ratio influences whether combustion is subsonic or supersonic. In fact, the Chinese team was able to induce either subsonic or supersonic combustion simply by changing the fuel to air ratios. A lower fuel-to-air ratio produced supersonic combustion and a higher ratio allowed subsonic combustion. The speed of the heated air forced into the inlet never changed during the experiment.

By igniting a slow stream of oxygen and a kerosene fuel at different fuel-to-air ratios, the Chinese team was able to photograph how flames look in their infancy. The flame ignited at subsonic levels danced and transitioned through three distinct states before stabilizing at a steady glow. Conversely, the flame ignited at supersonic speeds (and a lower fuel-to-air ratio) stabilized more quickly. Through the photography, the Chinese team showed that the subsonic flame was affected by a counterflow, where the air moved toward the inlet instead of the exit.

Identifying the counterflow in the subsonic flame is an insight into how air moves and reacts after flame ignition. Better understanding of phenomena like this leads to accurate modeling of this extreme environment and development of more effective ignition sources. These pretty pictures may help in the design of the next space-plane.


Space Vehicles Go Green – Reusable Launch Vehicle Concepts

In launch vehicles these days, it’s all about reusability. SpaceX recently tried to reignite its first stage booster, which is the initial step toward landing it vertically on the ground. If this first stage is landed successfully, it can be used again and again. DARPA is calling for proposals for a “reusable hypersonic vehicle with costs, operation and reliability similar to traditional aircraft.” Companies will propose their ideas on Monday October 7th.  Across the Atlantic, Reaction Engines is developing the SABRE engine, a radical engine for the Skylon spaceplane. Each design has the same intention, lowering the cost of access to space by reusing vehicles over and over again.

SpaceX has taken the most traditional approach to launch vehicles, using a vertical launch system and powerful rockets to get payloads into orbit. However, this system has not been reusable in the past. To add reusability to their system, SpaceX intends to have the massive first stage of the rocket land itself on the launch pad. The company is currently exploring the vertical landing technique through the Grasshopper research project, which completed a 325 meter leap test on June 14. While SpaceX’s system is not fully reusable, they are working toward that goal.

On the opposite extreme, Reaction Engines in the U.K. is developing a fully reusable spaceplane known as Skylon. Unlike SpaceX, which uses multiple stages of rockets to get into space (dropping used ones, such as the first stage, along the way), Reaction Engines wants their spaceplane to get into orbit using a single stage. To achieve this lofty goal, Reaction Engines is developing SABRE (see picture), a revolutionary rocket engine that uses atmospheric air as rocket oxidizer for a portion of the trip. Reaction Engines explains that SABRE sucks in atmospheric air through an inlet and then cools it to nearly liquid, basically generating its own oxidizer. However, once the Skylon exceeds Mach 5, the engine morphs into a typical rocket engine, using its own oxidizer stored onboard. This design allows Skylon to carry less liquid oxygen than a typical launch vehicle, saving space and weight for other essentials. With this radical engine, Skylon could be the start of a whole new family of launch vehicles.

In contrast, DARPA’s XS-1 spaceplane design concept seeks to be a melding of the traditional and radical. The radical part of the design is a suborbital spaceplane that can launch just like an aircraft, from the ground. This distinction is important because SpaceShipOne, a successful suborbital spaceplane, launched from a flying “mothership” airplane in 2004. The XS-1 concept, according to the proposer’s day announcement, is a reusable suborbital space plane with a (more traditional) secondary stage that would launch payloads into their required orbit. DARPA’s goal is ten flights in ten days, which would be a radical departure from current launch timeframes.

Although the goal of reusability is shared across these programs, the designs are completely different. They each also have their own timeframe. SpaceX is already conducting preliminary tests. The other two space planes are still in the concept phase. While parts of SABRE, such as the precooler system, have been tested, the Skylon system is years from launching. The XS-1 design is still flexible, so there’s no telling when it may be ready to fly. This flexibility shows how DARPA recognizes that they are many different ways to make reusable launch vehicles. The plethora of designs in development right now shows that reusable space vehicles are likely to be the next way to access space.