A Single Stage To Orbit Spaceplane - A Student Endeavour
A Single Stage To Orbit Spaceplane - A Student Endeavour
Vanguard is a team of 14 ambitious, determined, and hard working students who are developing a Single Stage To Orbit Spaceplane.
Vanguard is a team of 14 ambitious, determined, and hard working students who are developing a Single Stage To Orbit Spaceplane. Read more
About this project
Vanguard Advanced System consists of a team of 14 ambitious and dedicated final year university students working to research, design and develop a fully reusable Single Stage To Orbit (SSTO) Spaceplane. The current team has expertise across different disciplines including Physics, Mathematics, and Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering. All of our time in between lectures and exams is spent on trying to achieve our goal – to develop a fully reusable spaceplane which could redefine space access.
We have been running a development blog since October 2016 which has been documenting our progress during the design and simulation phases.
A spaceplane combines aspects of both a plane and a rocket; as the name suggests, it is a plane that can fly in space and within the Earth's atmosphere. NASA's space shuttle and X-15 craft are examples of spaceplanes, however these were multistage systems that were not able to get off the ground without assistance.
We are working on a specific type of spaceplane, a fully reusable single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) spaceplane. This would have the ability to reach a stable orbit without jettisoning any hardware – such as boosters – and only expelling propellant.
The reusability of our craft would significantly reduce the manufacturing requirements for every launch, decreasing the cost of payload per kilogram per flight to hundreds of pounds from the tens of thousands it currently costs. Imagine what the cost of travel would be if you had to buy a new car after every trip – this is what most of the space industry relies on at the moment. Furthermore, the turnaround time between flights for a spaceplane could be on par with modern day airliners, vastly increasing the frequency of missions relative to that of rockets.
In addition, a reusable spaceplane does not add to the space debris problem that currently exists in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). This problem is due to the sheer quantity of jettisoned hardware from decades of rocket launches, and is one of the issues that we hope to help tackle in the future.
There are several factors that have limited previous SSTO spaceplane concepts in the past. The main hurdle is inventing an efficient propulsion system that is capable of reaching LEO. Spaceplane concepts have either been heavily rocket-based – which is very inefficient at lower altitudes – or require a carrier airplane to get the spaceplane to as high an altitude as possible before launching into space. We seek to combine the best of both, resulting in a propulsion system capable of being efficient at low altitudes, and also powerful enough to get into a stable LEO.
This idea led to our adaptable HERA engine. This engine consists of both proven and new technologies in a novel combination, resulting in a more efficient and versatile propulsion system. Our current design uses existing aerospike technology, which is more compact and more efficient than conventional bell nozzle rockets.
Often, companies remain secure by refining technologies as opposed to innovating, opting for proven technologies instead of new ones. This is seen as the safer option since the limiting characteristics are well documented. Aerospikes were initially seen as promising when first designed in the 1960s, however, the simpler “bell” nozzle rocket quickly dominated the space industry.
Our concept utilizes bold and revolutionary technology, with our adaptive HERA engine design and its use of an alternative fuel source to that of existing aircraft.
The Athena-class SSTO spaceplane differs from other spaceplanes in its propulsion system. Its twin HERA engines are designed to adapt and perform at maximum efficiency from sea level to the vacuum of space. The HERA will run on Liquid Hydrogen (LH2) and Liquid Oxygen (LOX). This combination of fuel can increase engine efficiency by up to 30%, compared to that of a RP-1 and LOX mixture.
The HERA engine consists of six main systems: an intake, pre-cooler, compressors, combustors, turbines, and the aerospike. Using the velocity of the spaceplane, the intake of our engine compresses air, which greatly increases its temperature. If this high-pressure, high-temperature air entered the compressors it would cause significant damage. Therefore, the air must be cooled from approximately 1000C / 1850F to 0C / 32F by the precooler to be further compressed. The Hydrogen fuel is mixed with the highly compressed air using our specially designed nozzles, with the mixture then ignited and passed through the twin turbine system.
In modern airplanes, the fuel – typically aerospace grade kerosene – is a liquid sprayed into the combustion chamber to be burnt. Since we aim to use hydrogen, a different method of mixing must be used, as hydrogen is a gas at temperatures above -250C / -420F. After injection into the combustors, the hydrogen-air mixture is ignited, with the turbines subsequently extracting this power, keeping the compressor at optimum RPM to maintain maximum efficiency.
The inclusion of aerospike technology ensures maximum efficiency throughout the full altitude range of the missions. This efficiency arises from the exit plume’s ability to optimise its own size, which is a unique feature of this technology. Another benefit is the added versatility of the craft, enabled by thrust vectoring, which is achieved by independently controlling the fuel flow on either side of the aerospike. This reduces the number of mechanical control surfaces, further enhancing efficiency.
Aspects of our HERA engines took inspiration from the Pratt and Whitney J58 engine, famously used in Blackbird SR-71 aircraft, which is one of the most successful turbojet engines of all time. This is partially due to its ability to be dynamic during flight, achieved by changing the path of airflow (bypassing) throughout the engine. For example, at supersonic speeds, the J58 turns into a ramjet, which is, in effect, a turbo-rocket.
As for controlling the spaceplane, it will be unmanned and controlled from the ground, akin to a drone. Later, we aim to make the craft fully autonomous so that it can perform actions such as take-off, mid-flight controls, and landing.
Our innovative approach provides an alternative to mainstream aircraft designs, and solutions to the problems facing the aerospace industry.
The Athena-class spaceplane has come a long way since our initial concept. We have a general body design, the ‘Sears Haack’ body, which we have made more effective for the re-entry into the atmosphere. The overall design has been broken down into its component parts, with current focus being on design constraints and a mass breakdown. Most of the progress, however, has been made in the engines.
The shock nose is a component of the diffuser subsystem, which breaks the supersonic shock wave formed at the tip of the engine, providing smoother air flow through the engine. We have created a program which optimises the geometry of the shock nose to maximise efficiency.
An initial design has been completed for the precooler, the next stage of the engine. The role of this subsystem is to cool the incoming air to a low temperature for the purpose of increasing efficiency in the compressor subsystem. A fully functional low pressure compressor has been designed and modelled, with work starting on the high pressure compressor. This twin spool compressor system increases the pressure ratio of the air flow throughout the engine. From this, the air is ignited, and thrust is produced.
After exploring various designs, we are currently in the development for a continuous combustion chamber. This would add greater modularity to our engine design, making maintenance a much less cumbersome task. By utilising modern-day manufacturing techniques, such as 3D printing, the design will have improved performance, reduced part count and overall weight.
Progress has also been made towards the aerospike technology, with fuel cycles chosen and design improvements made for our specific purpose. Together, these components will be used to reach LEO at an altitude of around 150km, which requires a velocity of approximately 28,000kph / 17,500 mph.
We’ve held recruitment and outreach events to expand the team and raise Vanguard’s profile. This process has taught us a lot about the presentation of the company, how we approach the public about our ideas and goals, and what we need to do to be successful. Furthermore, we’ve expanded our social media presence and began the development blog to boost Vanguard’s engagement with the public.
We are currently organising industry-inspired projects for students at the University of Manchester, and plan to do the same with Swansea University. These projects would be conducted by 3rd year students with guidance from our team in order to give a perspective of industry research to undergraduate students. This is our first connection to the academic community and one that we hope will only get stronger in the future.
Cubesat Deployment - We aim to make our spaceplane a dedicated CubeSat launcher. CubeSats are miniature, cheap, and multi-purpose satellites that are used for remote sensing and experiments, as well as telecommunications. Our spaceplane will dramatically reduce the cost of launching a CubeSat into LEO, allowing smaller organisations to launch their own satellites for a fraction of the current cost. This would make affordable space access a reality for the space industry, including universities, research institutions, government agencies, and commercial companies.
Microgravity Experiments - Improving access to space will allow us to improve the quantity and quality of microgravity experiments. A stable orbit will be sustained for extended periods of time, allowing longer experiments to be carried out with ease, as opposed to current space research systems. Currently, the only other location for extended microgravity experiments is the International Space Station, which has very limited capacity. These experiments would increase our understanding of the effects of microgravity on things such as agriculture, the spread of various viruses, parasites, and bacteria, and many others. This would fulfil the demand for a platform from which bold experiments and scientific research can be carried out.
Space Debris Clean-up/Recycling - A growing problem that faces current and future space exploration is the increasing amount of space debris. This debris is present at two altitudes: LEO and Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO). LEO space debris makes it difficult to predict orbit paths, which is dangerous for satellites as well as rocket launches. The European Space Agency has identified this as an urgent problem for the space industry. Furthermore, many GEO satellites are now decommissioned and have been placed into a “grave-yard orbit”. Our spaceplane could be the first craft capable of solving this problem. With the use of a mechanical arm and CubeSats, it would would be able to collect the debris and recycle expensive equipment, or cause it to burn up in Earth’s atmosphere.
By supporting Vanguard Advanced Systems through a pledge, big or small, you are playing a major role in supporting the future of an ambitious start-up, allowing our driven and committed team to further pursue a dream that becomes closer to reality with every backer. You are also investing in your own future, helping the space community to create a new era of more affordable and sustainable space access.
Your pledges will provide the foundations on which we can develop the Athena-class spaceplane: a craft designed for the benefit of all humanity. We are problem solvers at heart and by training, and seek to use this technology to help solve problems that the global community currently faces. We believe that our technologies will propel Earth into a brighter future, opening up new possibilities for all. You can be a part of this project too by pledging to support us.
Here is our retro print designs (second one to be revealed soon).
Each and every pledge will aid us in the process of developing our craft: these stretch goals are here to show what we can do once we surpass our funding goal. We will make an array of extra benefits available to all of our backers to express our eternal thanks for your contribution to our dream!
Risks and challenges
Space is an unforgiving and hostile environment, with the journey to space equally as dangerous as operations in orbit. Complications can occur at any stage during a mission and navigating space debris remains a challenge for orbital flight. Re-entry is also a major obstacle for a fully reusable spaceplane since previous craft designs only implemented single-use or semi-reusable heat shielding. Whilst spaceplanes haven’t been tested as thoroughly as rockets, we strongly believe that our solutions will overcome these obstacles. We are including redundancies and fail safes wherever possible to maximise the likelihood of a safe return.
We are committed to our vision of a future wherein more affordable, safer, and environmentally-friendly space access is a reality for the space industry. Therefore, if funding remains limited, everyone in the team will work on a part-time or voluntary basis during our research and development phase. Every member of the team has committed to conducting research around other work, as we have done thus far. Whilst time consuming, research and development can be run on limited funding, which is why we’ve tried to be modest in our funding targets and are only asking what is absolutely necessary for an aerospace firm, in comparison to the more mainstream companies in the industry. During this period, designs can be refined and simulations can be run, all of which will propel Vanguard in our goal to redefine space access.
We are promising to keep all of our backers up to date on our progress with our blog (https://www.vanguardadvancedsystems.com/blog/), so you can join us on this incredible journey. We ask that you strongly consider making a contribution to our cause. Large or small, if we succeed you will become part of something that changes how humanity views space travel, and consequently, the course of human history.
*Note: the panel will be manufactured ahead of production, and displayed in our offices until such a time when the rest of manufacturing and assembly takes place.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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