A pioneering rocket technology firm has successfully tested a rocket using only water as a propellant.
URA Thrusters based at Westcott Venture Park led a consortium of commercial enterprises and academics from the UK and Singapore, to fire and operate a Hall Effect Thruster (HET) which is powered by oxygen and hydrogen produced from water electrolysis (AQUAHET).
HETs are small rocket engines widely used on spacecraft and usually operate on expensive gases such as xenon or krypton. The AQUAHET engine is designed to make rocket propulsion cheaper and more sustainable in future, by using water electrolysis by-products as a propellant.
Dr James Sadler, Chief Technology Officer of URA, said: "The testing performed and outstanding results collected by the consortium have shown that the potential for a fully sustainable electric propulsion future is now within our grasp.
“These results will open up the next stage of the development of the AQUAHET engine towards a commercial product that has the potential to revolutionise the space industry in the next 10 years."
Significantly, URA completed development of the old R Site at Westcott last year (renamed now as TESTA) where the water electrolysis thrusters testing is happening. The work was supported by Buckinghamshire Local Enterprise Partnership with a £250,000 Getting Building Fund grant towards the development of the thruster technology.
The water electrolysis propulsion system was developed by URA in collaboration with the European Space Agency with further support from consortium partners Imperial College London, which hosted the test campaign at its Imperial Plasma Propulsion Laboratory, and Singapore-based space tech company Aliena.
URA is now looking to commercialise the engine for use in the next generation of medium and larger satellites such as geostationary telecommunication platforms or exploration missions.
It has multiple advantages over existing engines. For example, water is much more cost-effective due to its abundance on Earth and other celestial bodies, making it a naturally secure fuel while it can also be stored in a low-pressure vessel prior to launch, removing all type of fuelling activities onsite, and allowing for regulatory protocols to be bypassed.
Also, water and its by-products, hydrogen and oxygen, can be used to power other modes of propulsion on a spacecraft. Further development of the system will now take place as it closes in on flight readiness with the aim of making it a primary choice for future space missions.
Richard Harrington, Chief Executive of the Buckinghamshire LEP, said: “This cutting-edge technology using water as a propellant for spacecraft propulsion is an innovative green technology and opens exciting possibilities for space exploration.
“It is yet another example of how Bucks LEP funding continues to deliver transformative growth. The sustainable propulsion systems URA Thrusters are developing from the Buckinghamshire Enterprise Zone open the possibility for far more ambitious space missions than anything that has been achieved so far.”