Marcom developing South African rocket engine

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Marcom Aeronautics & Space is developing a rocket engine in support of its Cheetah-1 satellite launch vehicle, a two stage expendable launch vehicle designed to carry up to 1000kg to low-Earth orbit as South Africa moves towards greater self-sufficiency in space.

The MAS-10K is a 10 kN thrust, regeneratively cooled, pressure fed, Liquid Oxygen/Ethanol rocket engine that is currently in development, manufacture and testing by Marcom.

Although the MAS-10K will be the prototype engine for the Cheetah-1, the overarching objective is to provide key cost information with respect to the development and manufacture of more substantial engines and benchmark the total cost of developing local launch capability in South Africa, Marcom said.

The engine is designed and manufactured entirely in South Africa making use of various local aerospace, CNC, casting, valve and tank companies. To date, manufacture has been completed on key items of the engine (i.e. the spark torch igniter, injector plate, injectors, liquid oxygen manifold in addition to primary engine structural components).

Engine control will be provided by a specifically designed and locally manufactured engine control computer which is currently undergoing final testing. In further support of engine monitoring and control, delivery has been taken of all supporting control valves and instrumentation. Cryogenic testing of the main propellant valves and injector sealing arrangement has been successfully completed. Full engine assembly is expected shortly.

Once the engine assembly has been pressure tested, Marcom will undertake a three month long cold and hot firing testing programme.

As a prototype research and development engine with limited chamber pressure and expansion ratio, the MAS-10K is not expected to be considered for flight, however, with further development and testing and with the addition of an appropriate radiation cooled nozzle extension, the engine could be used as an upper-stage kick- motor for orbital transfer trajectories, Marcom said.

The manufacturing processes incorporated in the MAS-10K program are fully scalable and will be used in follow on development programs to build and test the first and second stage engines of the Cheetah-1 commercial satellite launch vehicle (CSLV).

These follow on engines, the MAS-58K and the MAS-860K are a technology step above the MAS-10K and incorporate a variety of additional technology. “With sufficient funding of these programs, MARCOM expects local launch capability could be achieved within 5 years,” the company said.

Marcom was founded in 2002 and has been designing and developing the Cheetah-1 CSLV. Capable of delivering a 1000kg payload into Low Earth Orbit, Marcom’s ultimate objective is to provide local launch services for South Africa and accommodating space transportation services for the global space industry.

The company has submitted several proposals to government in this regard and would like to become involved in a government/private sector satellite launch initiative.

South Africa has existing infrastructure that could be utilised for local satellite launches, notably facilities at Air Force Base Overberg. Although the launch pad was destroyed as part of South Africa’s nuclear stand-down and the payload processing facility was mothballed, Overberg has retained almost all of its space launch capability, including mission control centre, radar and telemetry tracking facilities and range safety systems, says Mark Comninos, head of Marcom Aeronautics & Space. The only extra modifications needed would be to re-commission the payload processing facility and construct a concrete launch pad.

Overberg is ideally suited to launching satellites intended for polar, sun-synchronous and high inclination orbits, Marcom says, as long as the fly-out direction is over the southern or south-eastern ocean.

South Africa can and does build its own small satellites, starting with SunSat, which was built by Stellenbosch University and launched by NASA in 1999. South Africa’s second satellite SumbandilaSat was built by local specialist company SunSpace at a cost of R26 million. Although its imaging capacity is not has high as other satellites, it has succeeded in its primary stated mission of proving the viability of affordable micro-satellite technology. SumbandilaSat was launched from Kazakhstan in September 2009.

According to the UK Space Strategy, the overall world market for the space industry is likely to grow from £160 billion in 2008, to at least £400 billion by 2030, with a yearly growth rate of 5%. In September 2010 Space News reported that the global satellite market stands at between 20 and 30 satellite launches a year.

In April 2010 the trade publication Satellite Markets & Research said that Africa was one of the fastest growing markets for telecommunications and satellite services and is growing at nearly twice the global average of 6-7%. This growth is set to continue well into the next decade, spurred by demand for cellular and Internet connectivity as well as government initiatives, Satellite Markets reported. An estimated 20 new satellites with coverage on Africa will be launched in the next five years to address the current capacity shortage on the continent.

South Africa plans to launch satellites within the next 15 years in an effort to break into the global satellite launching market and lower the cost of launching its own satellites. The Department of Science and Technology (DST) has announced that workshops will be held to create a firm launch plan.
“Simply put, without independent access to space, South Africa cannot timely and effectively provide satellite services locally nor to other African countries, nor to other developing nations around the world,” Marcom says.