Scientists in the UK have developed a self-consuming rocket they hope can be used to reduce space junk.
A group of University of Glasgow engineers announced in a Wednesday press release that they had built and tested a “autophage”, which is derived from the Latin for “self eating” and refers to a rocket engine that consumes its own parts for fuel.
The researchers said the rocket could help “avoid adding to the problem of space debris — discarded waste that orbits the Earth and could hamper future missions.”
The team named its Ouroborous-3 prototype after the ancient mythical serpent that continuously swallows its own tail.
And somewhat like the creature, the rocket engine is designed to burn up its rear end once it has used up all the fuel within it.
The researchers said that the engine’s combustion produces waste heat which melts plastic parts, and this is funneled back into the combustion chamber to be used as fuel. That extra fuel is then burned along with the engine’s regular liquid propellants, according to the researchers.
By using the body’s own fuel as a propellant, this process allows the rocket to carry more cargo. For example, tiny nanosatellites can be delivered into space.
“A conventional rocket’s structure makes up between five and 12 percent of its total mass. Our tests show that the Ouroborous-3 can burn a very similar amount of its own structural mass as propellant,” Patrick Harkness, who led the project, said in the press release.
“We could use at least a portion of this mass to carry payloads in future rocket designs.” he said.
When the rocket has finally used up all its fuel, it burns the rest of itself up in a quick explosion, USA Today reported.
The traditional tanks, however, are usually destroyed by space debris, or fall back to Earth after they have been used.
So, if a rocket engine like the Ouroborous-3 can be used regularly, it could help curb space’s worsening junk build-up.
The press release stated that the researchers could improve their design with additional funding from UK Space Agency.
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