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Energia's super-engine might get a second life

The developer of the hydrogen-burning engine that propelled the Soviet shuttle Buran into orbit says it is preparing to restore the production of the mighty powerplant for a future Russian super-rocket.

Previous chapter: Energia rocket

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Above: RD-0120 engines next to the Energia-Buran system in Baikonur.

In 1976, the KBKhA design bureau in the city of Voronezh began work on a powerful hydrogen engine for the second (core) stage of the giant Energia booster. The RD-0120 engine could develop more than 200 tons of thrust and rivaled NASA's Space Shuttle Main Engine, SSME.

The RD-0120 engine became the most powerful Soviet rocket engine with a single combustion chamber ever flown and it represented the technological pinacle of rocket propulsion in the USSR. The engine was reportedly assembled out of 5,525 components and required 52,000 separate blueprints.

The 200-ton-thrust engine had the capability to gimbal up to 11 degrees along two perpendicular axis in order to steer the Energia rocket in flight. In addition to its main role as a thrust generator, the RD-0120 was also supplying gaseous hydrogen for the pressurization of the oxidizer tank onboard the Energia rocket.

After more than a decade in development, a cluster of four RD-0120 engines performed flawlessly during two launches of the Energia rocket in May 1987 and November 1988. The second Energia launch delivered the 100-ton Buran orbiter into the Earth orbit. However the Energia and Buran were abandoned during the post-Soviet economic collapse of the 1990s.

After the dissolution of the USSR, the Russian rocket industry made attempts to "save" the RD-0120, along with its extensive support and manufacturing infrastructure. Plans were made to integrate the engine into the post-Soviet rocket development projects, such as Energia-M and the original version of the Angara booster. However, the scale of this awesome technology turned out to be unaffordable for the Russian space budget in the 1990s and the unique hardware and experience associated with RD-0120 quickly decayed beyond repair.

Second life for RD-0120?

Russian rocket engineers had to take a second look at powerful hydrogen engines at the end of the first decade of the 21st century, when the industry had began drafting a roadmap toward a new-generation super-heavy rocket. In 2009, a scale model of the RD-0120 engine reappeared among Russian propulsion systems displayed at the Paris Air and Space Show in Le Bourget. By 2013, the KBKhA design bureau, which developed the original RD-0120 engine, declared its restoration as one of several high-priority projects. According to a schedule developed by KBKhA in coordination with its manufacturing arm -- the Voronezh Mechanical Plant -- the RD-0120 could be brought back to production in six years, given adequate funding.

The final decision on the restoration of the RD-0120 would depend on the approved architecture of the super-heavy rocket, whose development was included into the latest draft of the Federal Space Program from 2016 to 2025. Plans to restore RD-0120 had its critics, who believed that a new investment into the hydrogen propulsion technology would be too costly and risky for the Russian rocket industry. A recent analysis of prospective super-heavy rocket designs by RKTs Progress, the developer of the Soyuz rocket, favored methane and solid propellants over the liquid hydrogen. At the same time, an alternative proposal from RKK Energia, the Russia's chief manned space flight contractor, featured the RD-0120 engine on the third stage of the super-heavy Energia-KV rocket, industry sources said.



Known specifications of the RD-0120 engine:

Liquid hydrogen
Liquid oxygen
203.8 tons
Specific impulse
4,462 meters per second
Combustion chamber pressure
21.8 megapascals
Burn time
500 seconds
3,450 kilograms
4,550 millimeters
2,420 millimeters


Read (and see) much more about this and many other space projects in Russia
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Next chapter: A proposal for a super-heavy rocket from RKK Energia

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Page author: Anatoly Zak; Last update: September 4, 2014

Page editor: Alain Chabot; Last update: July 27, 2014

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RD-0120 engines for the Energia rocket in Baikonur. Click to enlarge. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak



The core stage of the Energia rocket sported four RD-0120 engines. Copyright © 2000 Anatoly Zak


A scale model of the RD-0120 engine presented at the Paris Air and Space Show in Le Bourget. Copyright © 2009 Anatoly Zak


A rare commemorative model of the RD-0120 engine. Copyright © 2011 Anatoly Zak


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