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An Introduction to Exoge Aerospace

Published by Rob on Wed Nov 19, 2008 5:27 pm
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I recently got wind of a group called Exoge Aerospace. Naturally I went to their website to see what they had been up to. As luck would have it, they have recently updated their news section. Their latest news “NOP Engine Tests” was posted just this month. Several other news releases were also posted within the last few weeks.

I got in contact with Thomas McNeill and the team so that I could find out some more information about their background and future plans. When asked about the start-up of the organisation, I was told “It started when I joined SEDS, Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, a few years ago. I had always been interested in aerospace and opening access to space. The SEDS group was working on a high altitude rocket competition so I decided to get involved. I met Damion in SEDS and volunteered some time to the Aero Lab. We became friends and worked on several projects. During the SEDS Space Vision 2006 conference in Chicago the speakers inspired me to get to work on something. So Damion and I got together and went over many ideas and came up with this one.

The image to the right is a still from the latest test; Exoge Aerospace also has a video available to download. Download the final test of the engine for the Senior Design Project Here. Thomas adds, “This picture shows what happens when the nitrous bottle runs too low.

I was initially impressed with Exoge Aerospace because unlike many potential aerospace companies and teams around right now, these guys had already begun testing. There seems to be a trend lately whereby teams’ sign up for competitions, create a flashy website then actually show no real hardware. Exoge Aerospace is an exception, which is why I asked about the development of their hardware. They tell me “We are in the beginning stages of development. We have an evolving design. In everything I have ever planned to do the plan is the first thing to go in the trash. We have noticed most limitations in launch vehicles were designed in to the vehicle; so instead of trying to design the parts for the rocket we are trying to design the parts and the rocket separately and meet in the middle with the best design we can.

With that answered I started to get thinking about what else we may see from the team, I asked the team if they were working to a specific timetable. A few teams have recently said that timetables can actually hinder progress; I believe that Virgin Galactic said they didn’t enjoy using timetables as safety was their first priority. The team tell me that “We do not have any time tables. We are not funded and setting a time line would lead to us not meeting the newly made time line. We would of course like to be able to work non-stop but of course that is impossible. Currently this is a project not a full time job. We work on this after work and weekends when we have time.

With the Google Lunar X-Prize, The Lunar Lander Challenge and the newly formed N-Prize amongst many, there is more opportunity than ever for teams to get involved with competitions and to potentially win large sums of money and publicity. I asked if they had thought about this.

We have looked at some of the prizes but none of them coincide with our goals. The Lunar Lander competition is very different from our goals. America’s Space Prize is close but the deadline is too soon and our design does not fit the reusability clause. If something were to arise that would further our design and coincide with our plans we would definitely be interested.

With the arrival of these competitions there has been a lot of speculation regarding potential markets. When asked about these markets, Exoge Aerospace feel their design stands out from their competitors, they add “This is where our design stands out. The modular configuration is scalable. We can put four modules together and do a sub-orbital launch. The next launch could be sixty-four modules and would launch a small satellite. The platform scales to meet most customers needs from small to large.” They later expand a little, talking about their competitive advantage they add “We have a lot of competition but a lot of them have designs that do not scale. They have suborbital vehicles that can not be made orbital. We did not want to redesign for every phase of operation so we chose a modular design. This allows us to match a vehicle to customer needs. Most launch providers have a vehicle and require the customer to design the satellite around the launch platform. We want to be able to provide a vehicle for anything that needs to be launched.

It is often interesting to see if companies look towards potential future competitors, and use them as a source of inspiration. There has been a great deal of respect for Armadillo Aerospace, their openness to share their success and failures. Their open policy has time after time seen them helping other organisations. Exoge Aerospace highlight some of their influences.

I have long followed Armadillo Aerospace. The openness they provide is outstanding. More recently Unreasonable Rocket has shown what hard work and limited resources can do. The design is based on and inspired from OTRAG.

Some people may look at the multiple engine design and wonder how if this may be of concern. Many rockets have tried and failed, the Soviet N-1 to mention just one. This is something that must be addressed before a company can be seen as serious, and safe. Talking about this risk, Exoge Aerospace tell us how one of their goals is to make the rocket fly with multiple engine failures

One of the design goals is to make it fly with multiple engine failures. The final stage is the only stage that will have problems with engine out. All of the engines can be throttled and this will allow the computer to compensate for failures. We also plan to run the engines through a gauntlet of reliability tests. XCOR tests their engines over and over and we plan to do the same to ensure stable engines. Most engines are designed to extract every bit of performance possible. They push the limits to get the best performance which also can hurt reliability.

We are also implementing a piston pump design. We had originally wanted to do a pressurized vehicle but the weight of the helium tanks and the weight of the fuel and oxidizer tanks to hold the pressurized fuel were too much. We had thought of using liquid helium and boiling it off to pressurize but then we have to use a heat exchanger with the engine and that would add some complications. We have been wanting to use Hydrogen Peroxide for some time but supply has been a big issue. There has been a huge revival in peroxide and that has brought us back to designing for it. We want to use the decomposed peroxide to run the piston pump. It is non cyrogenic and has a high density. It is also easily decomposed with non-reusable catalysts. Many design problems with peroxide are from catalysts that wear out. We are also not going to run it as a monopropellant in the engines. We will most likely use kerosene or diesel with it. Our first engine will use kerosene since it is easily acquired. Peroxide allowed Armadillo to have rapid advancements while they were using it and it did the same for Unreasonable Rocket. We hope it does the same for us as well.

With safety such a critical factor, some may worry that “mass-production” may lead to problems with quality assurance. Even after checking one engine, problems may still be prominent. Having to check many could potentially multiply the chance of a missing a potential problem. Exoge aerospace talk about a quality assurance method “Once we have everything designed and tested we will have a quality assurance method worked out. We also want to design everything to be as simple as possible to eliminate many of the failure modes normally associated with rockets.

So, what does the future hold for Exoge Aerospace? What can we expect to see from them? I am told that they are working on some valves and storage for small quantities of peroxide, also acquiring the tooling they need for some of the production. They add “Once we get some of the plumbing items completed we will begin putting the engine together. We want to first test the engines without a pump and then test them with a pump. The fewer the variables the better. The first engine we plan on making as a group will be a 200lbf thrust engine running at 100psi chamber pressure. This will test our injection and ignition ideas. Then hopefully they just get bigger from there.

Visit the team’s site at http://www.exoge.com/

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