Spaceflight Insider

SNC: ORBITEC completes testing of rocket propellants

ORBITEC Vortex Rocket Engine SNC image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Image Credit: ORBITEC

Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) announced on Nov. 10, 2015, that Orbital Technologies Corporation  (ORBITEC) has successfully completed testing of not one but three different propellant combinations. These are planned for use on the 30,000-pound thrust vortex rocket engine.

According to a release issued by Sierra Nevada Corporation (ORBITEC is a wholly-owned subsidiary of SNC), ORBITEC completed its efforts in less than a year’s time. The engines that the company is developing will be put to work on orbital maneuvering, upper-stage engines which are required to ignite at high altitudes. These engines will also be used on small-to-medium-scale air and ground launch stage engines.

“We are extremely optimistic about the performance and broad application of the vortex engine which, during tests, exhibited very smooth and stable combustion and Specific Impulse efficiencies,” said Tom Crabb, ORBITEC’s executive vice president and chief operating officer. “With ORBITEC’s natural ability to rapidly iterate design and testing, these performance results should quickly lead to refinement and qualification of engines for next generation launch systems and to continued scaling for larger engines.”

“SNC is very pleased that ORBITEC has exceeded expected performance and efficiency targets for this rocket engine,” said Mark N. Sirangelo, corporate vice president of SNC’s Space Systems. “ORBITEC is going to apply their patented vortex engine technology to develop a new family of rocket engines that will serve as [the] booster and upper-stage engines for a variety of customers such as the U.S. Air Force, NASA, and other commercial space companies.”

The company is working to have the same core rocket engine design be capable of using different propellant combinations. Slight changes will need to be made in terms of the specific combination of fuel and oxidizer, it will include propane and kerosene fuels with nitrous oxide (more commonly known as laughing gas) and liquid oxygen oxidizers.

It is hoped that these efforts will offer potential customers with engines that will have the ability to be “scalable” to higher thrust levels with clients able to select fuel combinations used on the single core engine design.

The vortex rocket engines use a swirling propellant flow system that cools the engine walls naturally. SNC’s statement noted that this should allow for: the development and manufacture of simpler, low-cost, light-weight and more robust rocket engine systems.

ORBITEC’s future efforts will involve the development of vortex engines that are capable of generating 65,000 pounds of thrust – using liquid oxygen and hydrogen / liquid oxygen and methane and other engines capable of producing 75,000 pounds of thrust using liquid oxygen and kerosene.


Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology,, The Mars Society and Universe Today.

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