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MAE 5391: Rocket Propulsion Overview of Propulsion Systems. Rocket Technologies. Propulsion Technology Options. Thermodynamic Systems (TE KE) Cold Gas Thrusters Liquids Monopropellants Bipropellants Solids Hybrids Nuclear (NE TE KE) Electric Systems

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MAE 5391: Rocket Propulsion Overview of Propulsion Systems

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Mae 5391 rocket propulsion overview of propulsion systems

MAE 5391: Rocket PropulsionOverview of Propulsion Systems

Rocket technologies

Rocket Technologies

Propulsion technology options

Propulsion Technology Options

  • Thermodynamic Systems (TE KE)

    • Cold Gas Thrusters

    • Liquids

      • Monopropellants

      • Bipropellants

    • Solids

    • Hybrids

  • Nuclear (NE TE KE)

  • Electric Systems

    • Electrothermal (Resistance Heating)

    • Electrostatic (Ion with E field F=qE)

    • Electromagnetic (plasma with B field F=JxB)

  • With the exception of electrostatic and electromagnetic, all use concept of gas at some temp flowing though a converging/diverging nozzle!

Chemical limitations

Chemical Limitations

  • Why we have thermo!

Vexit= nozzle exit velocity (m/s)

Ru= universal gas constant (8314.41 J/kmol*K)

T0= chamber temperature (K)

Pe= exit pressure (Pa)

P0= chamber pressure (Pa)

M= molecular mass of gas (kg/kmol)

g= ratio of specific heats (no dimensions)

Cold gas

Cold Gas

Cold Gas: Expand a pressurized gas through a nozzle

Liquid monopropellant

Liquid Monopropellant

MonoProp: Decompose a single propellant and expand the exhaust through a nozzle

3 N2H4 4 NH3 + N2 + 336,280 joules

Liquid bi propellant

Liquid Bi-Propellant

BiProp: Combust (burn) two propellants (fuel + oxidizer) in a combustion chamber and expand exhaust through a nozzle

StorableIsp 250-320 sec


Cryogenic Isp 320 – 452 sec



Finert = 0.04-0.2



  • Composite propellant, consisting of an oxidizing agent, such as ammonium nitrate or ammonium perchlorate intimately mixed with an organic or metallic fuel and binder.




High density Isp

No chamber cooling



Can’t restart

Hard to stop

Modest Isp

Thrust function of burn area, Isp = 250-300 sec

Finert=0.06-0.38, 2/3 of motors have fiinert below 0.2

When solids go bad

When solids go bad!



Load Cell

Catalyst Pack

Test Stand

Fuel Element

Combustion Chamber


Hybrid: Bipropellant system with liquid oxidizer (usually) and a solid fuel

Isp= 290-350 sec


H2O2/PE Hybrid Test Set-Up

Polyethylene fuel rod

Nuclear thermal propulsion

Nuclear Thermal Propulsion

NERVA Program

  • Thrust = 890,000N

  • Isp = 838 sec

  • Working fluid = Hydrogen

  • Test time = 30 minutes

  • Stopped in 1972

  • Finert=0.5-0.7 (shielding)

Electrothermal resistojets


Electrothermal-- electrical energy is used to directly heat a working fluid. The resulting hot gas is then expanded through a converging-diverging nozzle to achieve high exhaust velocities. These systems convert thermal energy to kinetic energy

Electrothermal arcjets


In an arcjet, the working gas is injected in a chamber through which an electric arc is struck. The gas is heated to very high temperature (3000 – 4000 K), Arc temp =10,000K on average, and much greater in certain regions in the arc.

Power = 1.8 kW, Isp = 502, Thrust = 0.2N, Propellant = hydrazine

Electrostatic ion propulsion

Electrostatic-Ion Propulsion

  • Electrostatic-- electrical energy is directly converted into kinetic energy. Electrostatic forces are applied to charged particles to accelerate the propellant.

Deep Space 1 = 4.2 kW, Thrust = 165 mN, Isp = 3800 sec

7000 hours of operation is becoming the standard!

Electromagnetic mpd thruster

Electromagnetic-MPD Thruster

  • Electromagnetic-- electromagnetic forces directly accelerate the reaction mass. This is done by the interaction of electric and magnetic fields on a highly ionised propellant plasma.

NH3 MPD, F=23 mN, Isp= 600 sec, P=430 W

Stuttgart, Isp=5000sec, F=100N, P=6 MW, hydrogen

Pulsed plasma thrusters

Pulsed Plasma Thrusters

Isp = 500-1500 sec

P = 1 – 100 W

Thrust = 5mN/W

Hall effect thruster

Hall Effect Thruster

Power = 50W – 25kW

Isp = 500 – 3000 sec

Thrust = 5 mN- 1N

Propulsion system cost

Propulsion System “Cost”

  • Performance issues

    • Mass

    • Volume

    • Time (thrust)

    • Power

    • Safety

    • Logistics

    • Integration

    • Technical Risk

  • The “best” (lowest “cost”) option optimizes these issues for a given set of mission requirements

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