Researcher designs valve that could help power deep space flight

A researcher at the University of Alabama’s Propulsion Research Center says that a rotary valve, designed to be part of a rocket fuel delivery system, that he and his team have developed, could help send manned spacecraft to Mars. The fuel delivery system is critical for any such space travel, and Dr. James Blackmon says that valves are often the source of trouble in space flights.Blackmon-rotary-valve-University-Alabama-spacecraft-sequential-rotation-fuel-delivery-system-Mars-EDIWeekly

Working with a grant of just $5,000, given under the Space Act Agreement for developing and testing concepts for possible use in the US space program, Blackmon and his team designed the valve to be easily repaired. It can be repaired while still in use, he said.

On a spacecraft, the valve would operate in a “sequential pumping” configuration in which three fuel tanks are pressurized in sequential rotation. As the first fuel tank is depleted, the valve switches to the second tank, then the third. The tanks not being used are replenished for reuse, and the sequence begins again.

This system gives “both high pressure and fail operational ability,” Blackmon says. Unlike redundancy, where duplicate parts allow continued operation when a part fails, fail operational ability means that even if system components fail, the engine continues to operate.

The rotary valve has to endure less wear and tear than standard plunger valves “slamming open or slamming closed” or ball valves “clunking full open and clunking full closed.” His rotary valve “excels” because “it uses a mechanism operated by one of two redundant motors to turn a shaft and slide a configured recess to a port, opening that port for either fuel delivery or recharge. One valve can control filling and emptying of all three rotational fuel tanks in the sequential system, and it can replace multiple older style valves with a device that is lower weight, lower cost and more reliable.”

It can be repaired with a Crescent wrench and “simple” tools. And it can be repaired without removing it. “You just block it off and fix it.”

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