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Facilitating a future of dedicated launches for small payloads


How Protolaunch collaborated with University of Southampton to validate new orbital rocket engine

Based at the ESA Business Incubation Centre in Harwell, Protolaunch is a start-up formed in February 2019, specialising in propulsion technology for launch vehicle applications.

With more than 70 per cent of future SmallSat payloads forecast to be in the <250kg weight class and a new class of launch vehicle on the horizon, propulsion systems will continue to play a vital role in future space launches. Consequently, Protolaunch has focused its development on a novel rocket engine, capable of enabling low-cost access to space for small payloads.

The new system leverages a novel thermodynamic cycle and system-level optimisations to eliminate the need for complex pumps and turbomachinery, thereby reducing manufacturing complexity.

Validating new orbital rocket engine

To support the development of this innovative, new rocket engine, Protolaunch signed up to SPRINT to enable funded access to the expertise, research and facilities of the University of Southampton. The SPRINT project was aimed at experimentally validating the Protolaunch engine cycle and supporting the development of a hardware prototype.

The Astronautics group at the University of Southampton provided expertise and facilities for developing propulsion systems with a particular focus on large chemical bipropellant engines. The facilities used included the Graham Roberts Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the University of Southampton. The lab space was used for cold-flow tests of the engine (running water at high pressure through the system and measuring corresponding pressure drops) and the hot-fire rocket tests were conducted offsite at Westcott Venture Park.

This project focused on developing a novel cooling and pressurisation cycle for a rocket engine for small satellite launch applications. The development of this low-cost rocket engine would reduce the cost of access to space and will enable operators of small satellites to take complete control over their orbital timelines and trajectories.

Ready to compete in UK launch sector

In collaboration with the University of Southampton, Protolaunch successfully completed a major hot-fire test-campaign of the 10kN HILBERT rocket engine and is now ready to work with strategic aerospace partners to qualify, bespoke, and deploy its propulsion systems into small launcher applications.

Benefits achieved through the SPRINT project

  • Reaching a “huge technology milestone” of successfully demonstrating hardware performance which reduced time to market and accelerated the product development roadmap
  • Company is now in conversations with UK and international commercial partnerships
  • Project has led to work with European Space Agency (ESA) to assess the technology readiness of engines, securing a procurement under the ESA GSTP (General Support for Technology Program)
  • Will support future plans to grow business, raise private investment, expand team, build partnerships

SPRINT “achieves all planned outcomes”

Matt Escott, CEO of Protolaunch

Matt Escott, CEO at Protolaunch said: “As a start-up, we were looking to prove our new type of rocket, both computationally and experimentally. Our company has a strong capability in simulation and optimisation of propulsion systems and needed to move from design of a digital engine to build and test of the hardware.

“We needed to demonstrate and validate the technical side of the engine cycle so reached out to SPRINT who suggested the University of Southampton. Working in collaboration with Southampton has provided us with access to their expertise in chemical propulsion and propulsion laboratory facilities.

“With Southampton’s support, we designed, manufactured and tested the bipropellant rocket engine and its propellant delivery system, from analytical models and procurement of hundreds of components, to assembly and testing validation of components’ operation using water.

“All of this culminated in the successful experimental hot-fire test firing campaign that proved the thermodynamic cycle, potentially making manufacturing of engines easier and cheaper by using as few moving parts as possible.

“The SPRINT project has been a huge success and has achieved all of our planned outcomes, enabling us to confidently reach this huge technology milestone. We’re now in a position to expand our commercial partnerships in the UK and international launch sectors.”

From paper design to experimental testing

Charlie Ryan, Lecturer in Astronautics, University of Southampton

Dr Charlie Ryan, Lecturer in Astronautics at the University of Southampton added: “The focus of our innovative and ambitious project with Protolaunch was the chemical thrusters for the launch vehicle. This covered the initial paper design and assessment, through to the experimental test run of the engine.

“Using our expertise and facilities, such as the chemical propulsion labs and the independent Westcott testing facility in Buckinghamshire, we have been able to support the testing of an engine at a component level.”