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Draco Thrusters

SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft uses Draco thrusters to maneuver while in the vacuum of space and upon reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere. There are 18 Draco thrusters on each Dragon, distributed across four pods, with two of the pods housing four thrusters and two of the pods housing five thrusters. After reaching its targeted orbit after launch, Dragon separates from the rocket, then the Draco thrusters enable Dragon to make the long trek to the International Space Station.


Photo showing Draco thrusters to left and right of Dragon's open Guidance Navigation Control (GNC) bay as the Dragon spacecraft approaches the International Space Station.

Each Draco thruster, powered by nitrogen tetroxide and monomethylhydrazine is capable of producing about 90 pounds of thrust. SpaceX has also successfully test fired SuperDraco, a powerful new engine that will play a critical role in the company’s efforts to change the future of human spaceflight.

SuperDraco engines will power a revolutionary launch escape system that will make Dragon the safest spacecraft in history and enable it to land propulsively on Earth or another planet with pinpoint accuracy.

The SuperDraco is an advanced version of the Draco engines currently used by SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft to maneuver on orbit and during reentry. As part of SpaceX’s state-of-the-art launch escape system, eight SuperDraco engines built into the side walls of the Dragon spacecraft will produce up to 120,000 pounds of axial thrust to carry astronauts to safety should an emergency occur during launch.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program awarded SpaceX $75 million in April of 2011 to begin work developing the escape system in order to prepare the Dragon spacecraft to carry astronauts. Less than nine months later, SpaceX engineers have designed, built and tested the engine.

SpaceX’s launch escape system has many advantages over past systems. It is inherently safer because it is not jettisoned like all other escape systems. This distinction provides astronauts with the unprecedented ability to escape from danger at any point during the launch,not just in the first few minutes. The eight SuperDracos provide redundancy, so that even if one engine fails an escape can still be carried out successfully.

SuperDracos can also be restarted multiple times if necessary and the engines will have the ability to deep throttle, providing astronauts with precise control and enormous power. In addition, as a part of a recoverable Dragon spacecraft, the engines can be used repeatedly, helping to advance SpaceX’s long-term goal of making spacecraft more like airplanes, which can be flown again and again with minimal maintenance between flights.