SpaceX tries out its new SuperDraco rocket engine


February 1, 2012

SpaceX has test-fired its advanced new SuperDraco engine, to be used on the Dragon spacecraft

SpaceX has test-fired its advanced new SuperDraco engine, to be used on the Dragon spacecraft

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SpaceX, the California company that is developing the reusable Dragon spacecraft, recently test-fired its new SuperDraco engine. Presently, the Dragon capsule is equipped with less-advanced Draco engines, which are designed for maneuvering the spacecraft while in orbit and during reentry. The SuperDraco, however, is intended to allow the astronauts to escape if an emergency occurs during the launch.

Plans call for eight of the engines to be installed in the outer side walls of the Dragon. Together, these will create 120,000 pounds (54,431 kg) of axial thrust. Should something go wrong with the Falcon launch rocket while the spacecraft is lifting off, the SuperDracos will fire, allowing the Dragon to separate and fly to safety.

SpaceX claims that the new engines will have several advantages over those used by other spacecraft. For starters, they will remain attached to the Dragon throughout the entire launch, unlike other systems that are jettisoned within a few minutes of lift-off. They can also be restarted multiple times within one flight, and have the ability to deep throttle, which should reportedly provide the astronauts with "precise control and enormous power."

Additionally, like the Dragon and the Falcon, the SuperDracos will be reusable - one set should be good for numerous flights. If one of them does fail, the escape system is designed to still work successfully using the remaining seven.

Besides their use in emergencies, the engines could also be used to perform precise "propulsive landings" on Earth or other planets. In this scenario, by varying the downward thrust of the engines, astronauts could gradually lower the Dragon to the ground.

The SuperDraco engine was developed using a US$75 million grant that NASA's Commercial Crew Program awarded to SpaceX last April. The ground tests were conducted at the company's Rocket Development Facility in McGregor, Texas, where the engine sustained full-duration, full-thrust firing, and performed multiple demonstrations of deep throttling.

Some of those tests can be seen in the video below.

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

I\'m a big fan of SpaceX. Still, I\'m a little disappointed to learn that the Draco engines are fueled with hydrazine.

Hydrazine is the standard fuel for things like spacecraft attitude thrusters. It makes for simple engines, and it\'s a hypergolic fuel, so ignition is assured, but it\'s nasty stuff. It\'s toxic, and it will ignite on contact with any oxidizer.

There has been talk about replacing hypergolic fuels with less toxic fuels like peroxide-based monopropellants, but I guess that day has not yet arrived.

Jon A.

Awesome, Can\'t wait for the day when they land a spacecraft with no wheels or chutes!

Derek Howe

WOW that\'s kool I need a set for my roller skates

Jay Finke

An interesting new monopropellant being tested is nitrous oxide fuel blend (NOFB), which promises to have a specific impulse that matches LOX/kerosene bipropellant. Fuels such as acetylene are suspended in N2O in a proprietary process. The propellant has been tested, so it\'s not imaginary. I have no personal involvement with the inventing company, but for those interested in learning more, see

Pat Kelley

The use of anything but hydrogen as a lift fuel for big rockets is environmentally irresponsible. SpaceX should be grounded by the EPA.


@ solutions4circuits;

Why does there always have to be at least one person that is so negative about everything?


JMOdom, there\'s an EPA-Nazi in every crowd! If it weren\'t \"the enviroment\" it would be some other issue. Always a wet blanket.


Until we\'ve got better education about math, engineering, biology, and chemistry - we\'re going to have to put up with those that know next to nothing spouting \'environmental concerns\' about trace amounts of things that are difficult to avoid, yet the release of which is enormously helpful to mankind as a whole.

As is evidenced by our virtual inability to build certain things, environmental politics makes for a poor companion for engineering.

Glad to see Dragon is progressing.

James Dugan

re; solutions4circuits

The liftoff fuel that SpaceX uses is kerosene not Hydrazine. Hydrogen is energy intensive to extract and liquify and vast quantities are boiled off with every transfer. Kerosene is currently the less polluting fuel.


@Jon A. I do not see your problem with hydrazine, it\'s efficient, easy to handle, just ask the germans who shipped in bulk by train during WWII.

Your alternative h2o2, will spontanius decombust in rocket grade concentrations... But what, it was shipped on the same trains that carried hydrazine. Consider the reaction if two tanks got mixed...

The protocols regarding the use of hydrazin, are so well proven over the past 70 years that it\'s probably the simplest and safest option available.

Btw. Given the current safty procedures gasoline would never have been aproved for use in cars today. It\'s just do da%#$% dangerous.


Hydrazine is also a widely used industrial chemical which reduces its costs.

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