We describe the critical condition necessary for the inner cylinder radius of a rotating detonation engine (RDE) used for in-space rocket propulsion to sustain adequate thruster performance. Using gaseous C2H4 and O2 as the propellant, we measured thrust and impulse of the RDE experimentally, varying in the inner cylinder radius ri from 31 mm (typical annular configuration) to 0 (no-inner-cylinder configuration), while keeping the outer cylinder radius (ro = 39 mm) and propellant injector position (rinj = 35 mm) constant. In the experiments, we also performed high-speed imaging of self-luminescence in the combustion chamber and engine plume. In the case of relatively large inner cylinder radii (ri = 23 and 31 mm), rotating detonation waves in the combustion chamber attached to the inner cylinder surface, whereas for relatively small inner cylinder radii (ri = 0, 9, and 15 mm), rotating detonation waves were observed to detach from the inner cylinder surface. In these small inner radii cases, strong chemical luminescence was observed in the plume, probably due to the existence of soot. On the other hand, for cases where ri = 15, 23, and 31 mm, the specific impulses were greater than 80% of the ideal value at correct expansion. Meanwhile, for cases ri = 0 and 9 mm, the specific impulses were below 80% of the ideal expansion value. This was considered to be due to the imperfect detonation combustion (deflagration combustion) observed in small inner cylinder radius cases. Our results suggest that in our experimental conditions, ri = 15 mm was close to the critical condition for sustaining rotating detonation in a suitable state for efficient thrust generation. This condition in the inner cylinder radius corresponds to a condition in the reduced unburned layer height of 4.5-6.5.
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