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Tuesday, 25 June, 2002, 12:34 GMT 13:34 UK
Hybrid success for British rocket
Test firing

A group of British rocket enthusiasts has designed and tested a rocket that uses laughing gas and plastic as its propellants, and the high performance they have achieved means their rocket is no joke.

When ignited in a test pit the rocket, called the B4, produced a thrust of about a quarter of a tonne and behaved exactly as predicted.

"The test was a resounding success", said Ben Jarvis of the Mars Advanced Rocketry Society (Mars), Britain's longest-running rocketry group. "We are leading the field in this so-called hybrid design of rocket motor."

Later this year a rocket incorporating the new motor will make an attempt on the UK rocket altitude record, which stands at 10,540 m (34,579 ft) and is held by the Mars group.

The term hybrid is used because this type of rocket motor uses neither all-liquid fuel nor all-solid fuel, but a combination of both.

The Mars group has been developing the 1.5 metre (5 ft) long B4 hybrid engine for over three years. As fuel it uses liquid nitrous oxide and solid polythene plastic.

Record seekers

When burnt together inside the aluminium combustion chamber the propellants generate almost as much power as conventional solid rocket fuels, yet they produce hardly any environmentally hazardous chemical by-products.

The Mars group intends to use the rocket engine to set a new UK and European amateur rocket altitude record in a few months' time.

The rocket engine test was carried out to obtain vital thrust data and to evaluate improvements made to the engine since it was launched last November.

"The test was a stunning success. The motor operated exactly as our calculations had predicted, delivering a stable 0.25 of a metric tonne of thrust until the propellants were exhausted", said Ben Jarvis.

The engineering team
"Those of us at the test site were all impressed by the power that can be created from such unlikely propellants. The ground literally shook for ten seconds while the engine was running," he told BBC News Online.

"We obtained detailed information on the thrust of the motor as well as temperatures of the motor components during the test, and spectral analysis of the exhaust plume.

Competition

"All of this data will now be used to make final adjustments to the engine prior to its use as the propulsion system for a record bid later this year.

"Hybrid engines are a new area of rocket technology that is being opened up and we are glad to be leading the field."

Another UK rocketry group, AspireSpace, is also developing hybrid rocket motors and has recently successfully completed the 50th firing of its H2 rocket.

Rocket engineers say that hybrid rockets have potential. It is believed that those under development could eventually place small payloads into space for a few minutes, but not into orbit.

Limited application

But even hybrid rocket engines many times larger than the ones being developed by Mars would, according to experts, fall far short of being able to put a man into space.

Calculations suggest that they could lift a manned capsule only a few km and would not be able to be controlled safely.

The Mars team, who are working towards the goal of launching an unmanned amateur rocket into space, will be exhibiting the B4 engine and other rocketry hardware at the "Tomorrow's World Roadshow" exhibition at London's Earl's Court from 10 July.

See also:

22 Nov 01 | Science/Nature
02 Oct 00 | Science/Nature
22 May 00 | Science/Nature
23 Mar 00 | Science/Nature
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