Chair Force Engineer

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Marriages of Convenience

PlanetSpace (the sponsor of the Canadian Arrow space tourist rocket) has made some provocative alliances over the past few months. The first deal was an alliance with ARCA Space of Romania. The second is the assistance of hypersonics expert Paul Csysz on the "Silver Dart" orbital vehicle, an adaptation of the FDL-7 lifting body.

Looking at what ARCA Space has accomplished thus far, it's hard to tell what PlanetSpace hopes to gain from this arrangement. To ARCA Space's credit, they have successfully demonstrated a propulsion system and have flown several test rockets. This is a lot better than I can say about many other X-Prize contenders. Yet it should be noted that ARCA Space's engine uses the decomposition of 70% Hydrogen Peroxide rather than the fuel + oxidizer approach of most engines. The peroxide monopropellant engine has a low specific impulse, and has been relegated to reaction control rockets such as those on the X-15 and Mercury capsules.

ARCA has some big plans, such as the air-launched "Orizont" rocket. However, Orizont is a horribly complicated affair with swing wings and an "expendible air-breathing engine." ARCA would be advised to keep it simple. The simplest approach to space tourism is a single-stage rocket that lifts off from the ground, flies above the arbitrary 100 km boundary of space, then separates into capsule and booster segments that parachute to earth separately. This is precisely what Canadian Arrow is doing. Canadian Arrow has made real progress towards a manned capsule and a propulsion system, while clearing many of the legal and logistical roadblocks on the way to launching their rocket. The V-2 that has formed the basis for the Canadian Arrow is a proven design, and while it didn't have the most effecient of engines, it still used a potent LOX-Ethyl Alcohol propellant combination.

The announcement of the "Silver Dart" orbital vehicle struck me as being a bit premature ( I believe that companies should demonstrate their competence before making bold claims, and such an announcement should have waited until the Canadian Arrow actually flies.) However, it demonstrates forward planning and a desire to revisit sound ideas from the past.

In short, an alliance with ARCA Space is the last thing I'd want to pursue if I were the Canadian Arrow team. The deal with Paul Csysz is a bit better, but it will be many years before we see the benefits from this teaming.