Russia to develop methane-powered rocket engine – report

© Ramil Sitdikov
Russian Space Agency Roscosmos is to begin development of a new methane-powered rocket engine to keep up with international competition, according to a local media report. Financing for the project has been set aside in the 2016-2025 federal space budget.

Roscosmos is requesting that over 25 billion rubles ($326 million) be allocated for the Launch Vehicle Engines research and development program, with the first lump of over 470 million rubles ($6 million) to be made available this year, according to a report in Izvestia daily.

“We are planning to make a sample methane powered engine, even though there is currently no intention to build rockets that would use such an engine,” Izvestia cited one of the program developers as saying.

“This way we are planning to stay ahead of the curve and not to be left behind our foreign competitors in terms of technological advances. For now we are talking about creating an average thrust engine for the second stage of the prospective rocket.”

However, not all of the requested money is intended for the development of the methane engine, Izvestia added. The program also envisions the development of a new generation of liquid-propellant rocket engines and basic blocks for engines based on composite materials.

The new methane-based engines were initially intended to power the Phoenix rocket, the development of which was included in the federal space budget. However, it was later decided to redesign the existing Zenit rocket rather than create a completely new one.

The use of methane powered engines was explored earlier by several Russian research and development firms. Russian company Energomash organized a council to create a natural gas powered rocket engine in 2012. It proposed developing a single-chamber engine with a thrust of 200 tons powered by liquid oxygen/liquefied methane fuel.

American aerospace manufacturer SpaceX is also developing a methane-fueled rocket engine called Raptor. The methane-powered engine is highly reusable which will be necessary in exploring and colonizing Mars, according to SpaceX spokeswoman Emily Shanklin.

One of the benefits of methane-powered rocket engines is easier storage because methane is less bulky than hydrogen, which makes a big difference in longer space missions.

In addition, methane fuel tanks do not need as much insulation, which makes them lighter and cheaper to launch.

Methane could also be found in abundance in the outer solar system and harvested on Mars, Titan, Jupiter, and many other planets.

Scientists say that methane could eventually be manufactured on Mars by synthesizing water and carbon dioxide extracted from its atmosphere.

Meanwhile, the European Space Agency (ESA) is planning to launch the first part of its ExoMars mission on March 14, with the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) taking off on a seven-month journey towards Mars to look for sources of methane.