ABQ’s rocket engine technology could make space more accessible

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“Rocket Factory in a Box” installation by X-Bow Systems. The Albuquerque-based company uses its own additive manufacturing process to produce solid-state fuel in a compressed time frame, a process that takes place in custom shipping containers. (Courtesy of X-Bow Systems)

After nearly six years of research and development behind closed doors, Albuquerque-based X-Bow Systems publicly debuted a breakthrough rocket engine technology this year that could shake up the space launch industry.

X-Bow (pronounced “crossbow”), which originally formed in 2016, came out of stealth mode last April, unveiling a new family of suborbital and orbital launch vehicles, as well as a new automated process, potentially revolutionary, to manufacture solid- state propellant for rocket engines. This additive manufacturing process could represent the biggest technological leap in solid-fuel rocket engines in 50 years, potentially enabling radical reductions in vehicle launch costs and greater frequency of flight.

“Our solid rocket motor manufacturing process is an emerging disruptor for the aerospace industry,” X-Bow founder and CEO Jason Hundley told the Journal. “This is a patent-pending new ‘energy’ technology.”

X-Bow’s proprietary procedure for “additive manufacturing of solid propellants,” or AMSP, marks the first time a company has successfully applied 3D printing to solid-state fuel for rocket engines. Other manufacturers use 3D printing for the engines themselves, but only a few commercial companies currently make solid-state rocket motor fuel, and they use a long, decades-old process that normally takes six to eight weeks before delivery to customers, Hundley said.

The traditional fuel-making process begins with a slow mixing of chemicals, which can take up to five days. After that, the mixture is poured into a giant steel casting pit, where it sits for 10-15 days for the ingredients to slowly harden.

Then, when the solid-state fuel is ready for removal, it undergoes intensive post-inspection. And only after that is the propellant finally shipped to the final stage of manufacturing, where the fuel is incorporated into the assembly process of the rocket engine itself.

In contrast, X-Bow’s additive manufacturing compresses the entire mixing and curing procedure into a three-day process, with all of the automated technology installed inside compact shipping containers that X-Bow calls a “Rocket Factory in a Box”. Additionally, the company has developed proprietary rocket motors designed to be fuel-integrated through a simple snap-on procedure using canisters that encapsulate the propellant.

“It’s a cartridge-based approach,” Hundley said. “We put the energetics (propellant) in the bottom of the rocket engine and screw the nozzle in the back.”

The overall end result is a much simpler and more efficient process that significantly reduces the manufacturing footprint, dramatically speeding up the schedule and reducing the cost of manufacturing the solid-state thruster and fully assembled rocket motors themselves.

“We can produce about 700 pounds of grain (propellant) in about four hours, with one to two days for hardening before it’s dispensed out of the system,” Hundley said. “That means we can produce between 1,500 and 2,000 pounds of energy in a week.”

X-Bow had not considered creating new propellant manufacturing technology when it launched six years ago. Instead, Hundley and a group of fellow aerospace industry veterans founded the company to build a new family of launch vehicles that X-Bow originally developed in cooperation with Sandia National Laboratories and the Army Research Laboratory. air force at Kirtland Air Force Base.

This new vehicle, dubbed the “Bolt Rocket”, is designed for flexible construction to accommodate different sizes and capabilities for suborbital and orbital launches, with corresponding modifications to the rocker engine configuration depending on the mission. , Hundley said.

“We can go from junior size all the way up to super high-end vehicles,” Hundley said. “It’s a family of vehicles with a common front frame and rocket engine base.”

X-Bow originally expected to use commercial suppliers for its solid-state rocket motor thruster. But the procurement process turned out to be so slow and expensive that the company decided to create its own fuel manufacturing technology.

And that, along with its Bolt rocket and proprietary rocket engine design, has dramatically expanded X-Bow’s business opportunities beyond its initial focus on launch services for government and private sector customers. Space payload flights for customers remain at the core of X-Bow’s commercial offerings, but its proprietary solid-state rocket motors can be adapted for other uses such as missiles, including emerging hypersonic technology.

“We will do space launches as a service, but we can also adjust the factory design to provide rocket engines for other applications,” Hundley said. “Every tactical missile, for example, has a solid rocket motor.”

It could also become a commercial rocket engine propellant supplier, working with its customers to tailor the particular fuel mixtures needed for other rocket engine designs. And, given its lightning-fast propellant production process — as well as its various mission-specific rocket and engine designs — the company could offer some of the fastest project turnaround times in the industry. aerospace.

“We’ve developed an almost ‘just-in-time’ capability for suborbital and orbital systems,” Hundley said.

Thanks to its revolutionary technology, the company has already developed a formidable customer base in the government and commercial sectors, although it is only just emerging from stealth mode. It generated around $7 million in revenue in 2021 and projects between $15 and $20 million this year.

It also closed a $27 million private equity round in April with institutional and corporate venture capital funds, including Lockheed Martin Ventures.

The company was originally based in Huntsville, Alabama, although it has maintained a substantial presence in New Mexico since its launch.

In 2019, however, X-Bow moved its headquarters and all of its central operations to Albuquerque. It now leases a 5,000 square foot facility in Uptown and has established a manufacturing research and development complex in Socorro at the Institute of Mining and Technology of New Brunswick’s Energetic Materials Research and Testing Center. Mexico.

It currently employs about 70 people, more than half of them in New Mexico, with projected growth to 100 this year, based on government and commercial contracts being negotiated.

And it has close ties with many local businesses and public entities here. It is contracted directly, for example, with two New Mexico-based engineering companies to provide products and services.

“We’ve had several New Mexico companies involved in our operations, and we intend to keep them involved in future missions,” Hundley said.

In fact, Central New Mexico Community College has a vested interest in X-Bow through CNM Ingenuity, which manages all of CNM’s business activities. The Ingenuity Venture Fund and the ABQid Business Accelerator investment fund – also managed by CNM Ingenuity – jointly contributed to a $2.4 million investment in X-Bow three years ago, said TJ Cook, who manages both funds.

“X-Bow has really created a paradigm shift in the thruster world,” Cook told the Journal. “The company has developed platform technology not only for rocket launches, but for many other applications. It now has many commercial breakthroughs in place to excel in the market.

A new rocket engine company makes its first NM launch

X-Bow (pronounced “crossbow”) flew his “Bolt Rocket” at White Sands…

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