Sierra Nevada’s New VORTEX Upper Stage Engine Closer to Reality

VORTEX engine test (Credit: Sierra Nevada Corporation)

SPARKS, Nev., October 11, 2018 (SNC PR) – With its patented VORTEX™ engine technology, Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) is one step closer to testing a brand new version of its low-cost, high-performance upper stage rocket engine. The VR35K-A, developed in conjunction with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), is a commercialized version of the VORTEX engine system. The team will provide a fully integrated engine, leveraging technologies initially developed under Small Business Innovation Research programs.

“We are committed to using technology that is cutting-edge, but also cost-effective, and the VR35K-A is a great example of both,” said SNC’s owner and CEO, Fatih Ozmen. “This solution shows how small business technologies can be accelerated into valuable applications for commercial and military use. SNC partners with several other small businesses for components and key subsystems of the engines.”

SNC is expanding on its legacy success with the VORTEX technology, using it as the baseline for the next-generation liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen upper stage class engine. State-of-the-art technology and a VORTEX flow field to cool the inner walls allows the new engine to be simpler, smaller and lower cost.

The overall size of the engine is also drastically smaller in comparison with traditional combustion upper stage engines, making it up to 50 percent cheaper.

“AFRL has a history of developing and discovering new technology that can be applied in air and space and we are pleased to continue our commercialization effort with them,” said Tom Crabb, vice president of SNC’s Propulsion and Environmental business unit. “SNC’s VORTEX technology is truly a unique new value to future launches and we are both excited and motivated to see this program move forward.”

Testing will continue at SNC’s upgraded rocket engine test facilities near Madison, Wisconsin. Several important commercial, civilian and military applications are planned, including small engines used in orbiting spacecraft and vehicles and larger upper stage engines for final orbit delivery. Other launch and boost applications will also be tested.

“AFRL is always looking for innovative solutions, and SNC’s VORTEX technology in the VR35K-A rocket engine adds a new high-performance and low-cost option to the upper stage engine capabilities space for launch providers.” said Dr. Shawn Phillips, chief of the Rocket Propulsion Division at AFRL.

  • Lee

    Any chance this is an RL-10 killer?

  • Tom Billings

    Given its potential simplicity, it may very well be that at sufficient thrust levels and trust levels. If my assumption, that the designation means Vortex Rocket engine of 35,000 lb Thrust-at sea level Atmosphere, then it could be a potent competitor.

    I have been following the vortex cooled engine tech whenever I could find mention of it for the last 10 years. Its simplicity, in blocking radiative heat transfer to the walls of the thrust chamber by establishing a layer of propellant swirling in a vortex up the side of a liquid rocket’s chamber from the nozzle to the injector head has fascinated me for some time. I assume it will still require cooling channels *at* the nozzle and the bell, but the chamber itself can be much more simply and lightly made.

    Using LHy/LOX indicates the market they are shooting for with this engine, however, IIRC, before SN bought Orbitec, they had tested the concept with a wide range of propellants, including the now-popular Metha/LOX combination for launching first stages. With such Metha/LOX engines, a future challenger to SpaceX may well be able to compete well on price, especially if materials advances continue for the rest of the structure.

  • 76 er

    Very interesting. I hadn’t yet heard about this type of engine. Yes, companies (and governments) that don’t continually invest in R&D will lose in the marketplace.

  • Jeff Smith

    They should change the designation to V0RT3K5.

    Because… reasons.

  • Michael Halpern

    Methalox one could power a small kick stage for bfs payloads

  • Rocketplumber

    Unfortunately vortex engines inherently have abysmally bad mixing and combustion efficiency, taking a large hit in Isp. For a large engine on a big dumb booster, possibly okay, but for a high performance vacuum upper stage, hopeless.