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Rocket Propellants and their characteristics

Rocket propellants are the fuels and the oxidizers carried by the rocket for propulsion. It
is the mass that is stored in some form of propellant tank, prior to being used as the
propulsive mass that is ejected from a rocket engine in the form of a fluid jet to produce
thrust. A fuel propellant is often burned ith an oxidizer propellant to produce large
volumes of very hot gas. !here are a variety of different fuels and oxidizers because they
all have some tradeoffs. "or example, the cryogenic propellants have a better specific
impulse but they are harder to handle and tend to have lo densities. A higher specific
impulse helps by increasing the efficiency of the thrust per amount fuel spent. #oever
there is a tradeoff in terms of difficulty in handling and the lo densities hich re$uire a
larger tank
%hemical rocket propellants are most commonly used, hich undergo exothermic
chemical reactions to produce hot gas used by a rocket for propulsive purposes. !here are
three main types of propellants& solid, li$uid, and hybrid.
'ain Properties of Rocket propellants
Rocket propellants possess uni$ue properties, such as a capability to self(sustain the
burning process, generate thermal energy, and simultaneously produce propulsive mass.
)ome types of propellants are even able to self(ignite *initiate burning ithout outside
poer input+. ,nlike most other combustible chemicals, rocket propellants can burn in
vacuum. !his is because a propellant consists of to integral components& a fuel that
burns and produces propulsive mass and an oxidizer that facilitates and sustains
oxidation. In this respect, rocket propellants are more like explosives rather than like
automobile and aviation fuels hich re$uire atmospheric air for oxidation.
!he major difference beteen explosives and rocket propellants is the gas expansion rate
hich is much sloer in propellants and makes it possible to contain and control the
process of burning inside the rocket engine.
!he gases produced hen a fuel propellant is burned, expand and push on a nozzle,
hich accelerates them until they rush out of the back of the rocket at extremely high
speed, making thrust. )ometimes the propellant is not burned, but can be externally
heated for more performance. "or smaller attitude control thrusters, a compressed gas
escapes the spacecraft through a propelling nozzle.
In ion propulsion, the propellant is made of electrically charged atoms *ions+, hich are
electromagnetically pushed out of the back of the spacecraft. 'agnetically accelerated
ion drives are not usually considered to be rockets hoever, but a similar class of
thrusters use electrical heating and magnetic nozzles. -urning is the chemical process of
decomposition and oxidation of the propellant. !he resulting highly heated and
compressed gas *propulsive mass+ is ejected from a combustion chamber and facilitates
propulsion.movement of the aggregate attached to the rocket engine. In physical terms,
combustion converts chemical energy into kinetic energy.
#o do rocket propellants help in rocket propulsion/
Rockets create thrust by expelling mass backards in a high speed jet, making use of
Newton's Third Law of motion. %hemical rockets create thrust by reacting propellants
ithin a combustion chamber into a very hot gas at high pressure, hich is then expanded
and accelerated by passage through a nozzle at the rear of the rocket. !he amount of the
resulting forard force, knon as thrust, that is produced is the mass flo rate of the
propellants multiplied by their exhaust velocity *relative to the rocket+, as specified by
0eton1s third la of motion.
!hrust is therefore the e$ual and opposite reaction that moves the rocket, and not by
interaction of the exhaust stream ith air around the rocket. 2$uivalently, one can think
of a rocket being accelerated upards by the pressure of the combusting gases against the
combustion chamber and nozzle.
!his operational principle stands in contrast to the commonly(held assumption that a
rocket 3pushes3 against the air behind or belo it. Rockets in fact perform better in outer
space *here there is nothing behind or beneath them to push against+, because there is a
reduction in air pressure on the outside of the engine, and because it is possible to fit a
longer nozzle ithout suffering from flo separation.
!he maximum velocity that a rocket can attain in the absence of any external forces is
primarily a function of its mass ratio and its exhaust velocity. !he relationship is
described by the rocket equation& V
4 V
6 M
+. !he mass ratio is just a ay to
express hat proportion of the rocket is propellant *fuel6oxidizer combination+ prior to
engine ignition. !ypically, a single(stage rocket might have a mass fraction of 758
propellant, 958 structure, and hence a mass ratio of 95&9.
!he impulse delivered by the motor to the rocket vehicle per eight of fuel consumed is
often reported as the rocket propellant1s specific impulse. A propellant ith a higher
specific impulse is said to be more efficient because more thrust is produced hile
consuming a given amount of propellant.
:oer stages ill usually use high(density *lo volume+ propellants because of their
lighter tankage to propellant eight ratios and because higher performance propellants
re$uire higher expansion ratios for maximum performance than can be attained in
atmosphere. !hus, the Apollo()aturn ; first stage used kerosene(li$uid oxygen rather
than the li$uid hydrogen(li$uid oxygen used on its upper stages )imilarly, the )pace
)huttle uses high(thrust, high(density solid rocket boosters for its lift(off ith the li$uid
hydrogen(li$uid oxygen ))'2s used partly for lift(off but primarily for orbital insertion.
Rockets ork because every action has an e$ual and opposite reaction *according to )ir
Issac 0eton1s third principle+. In order for the rocket to rush forard, something has to
rush backards. !hat thing is the propellant. !he propellant is a material that spes out
of the back of the spacecraft giving it thrust, or a push forard.
<ften the propellant is a kind of fuel hich is burned ith an oxidizer to produce large
volumes of very hot gas. !hese gasses expand until they rush out of the back of the
rocket, making thrust. )ometimes the propellant is not burned, but pushed directly out of
the spacecraft, making thrust. In ion propulsion, the propellant is made of electrically
charged atoms, hich are magnetically pushed out of the back of the spacecraft. "or
smaller attitude control thrusters, a compressed gas is pushed out of the spacecraft.
!he nozzle of the rocket converts the thermal energy of the propellants into directed
kinetic energy. !his conversion happens in a short time, on the order of one millisecond.
=uring the conversion, energy must transfer very $uickly from the rotational and
vibrational states of the exhaust molecules into translation.
'olecules ith feer atoms *like %< and #
+ store less energy in vibration and rotation
than molecules ith more atoms *like %<
and #
<+. !hese smaller molecules transfer
more of their rotational and vibrational energy to translation energy than larger
molecules, and the resulting improvement in nozzle efficiency is large enough that real
rocket engines improve their actual exhaust velocity by running rich mixtures ith
somehat loer theoretical exhaust velocities.
;arious types of rocket propellants
!here are mainly three types of propellants, solid, li$uid and hybrid. -ut gel, inert and
gas propellants are also used.
)olid propellants
)olid propellants consist of an oxidizer and a fuel. In the case of gunpoder, the fuel is
charcoal, the oxidizer is potassium nitrate, and sulfur serves as a catalyst. *0ote& sulfur is
not a true catalyst in gunpoder as it is consumed to a great extent into a variety of
reaction products such as ?
) *dipotassium sulphide+. !he sulfur acts mainly as a
sensitizer loering threshold of ignition.+
!he very first rockets, built by the %hinese at some unknon period in the first
millennium, used solid propellants, a variant of black poder used in early guns. !he
pace of technological progress in solid propellants.and explosives in general.as
extremely slo.. It as not until the middle of the >5th century that solid propellants for
rockets made a sudden and dramatic leap forard. =uring the 97@5s and A5s researchers
in the ,nited )tates developed hat is no the standard high(energy solid rocket fuel,
Ammonium Perchlorate %omposite Propellant *AP%P+.
)olid(fueled rockets are much easier to store and handle than li$uid(fueled rockets, hich
makes them ideal for military applications. In the 97B5s and 97C5s the ,.). sitched
entirely to solid(fueled I%-'s& the :D'(E5 'inuteman and :D(99CA Peacekeeper
*'F+. In the 97C5s and 9775s, the ,))R6Russia also deployed solid(fueled I%-'s *R!(
>E, R!(>P', and R!(>,!!#+, but retains to li$uid(fueled I%-'s *R(EA and ,R(
9550+. All solid(fueled I%-'s on both sides have three initial solid stages and a
precision maneuverable li$uid(fueled bus used to fine tune the trajectory of the reentry
!heir simplicity also makes solid rockets a good choice henever large amounts of thrust
are needed and cost is an issue. !he )pace )huttle and many other orbital launch vehicles
use solid(fueled rockets in their first stages *solid rocket boosters+ for this reason.
Relative to li$uid fuel rockets, solid rockets have a number of disadvantages. )olid
rockets have a loer specific impulse than li$uid(fuelled rockets. It is also difficult to
build a large mass ratio solid rocket because almost the entire rocket is the combustion
chamber, and must be built to ithstand the high combustion pressures. If a solid rocket
is used to go all the ay to orbit, the payload fraction is very small. A draback to solid
rockets is that they cannot be throttled in real time, although a predesigned thrust
schedule can be created by altering the interior propellant geometry. 66 95 pages...
:i$uid propellants
!he highest specific impulse chemical rockets use liquid propellants. !his type of
propellant has a long history going back to the first rockets and is still in use, for example
in the )pace )huttle and Ariane @.
<n 'arch 9A, 97>A, Robert #. Doddard used li$uid oxygen *LOX+ and gasoline as
propellants for his first successful li$uid rocket launch. -oth are readily available, cheap,
highly energetic, and dense. <xygen is a moderate cryogen . air ill not li$uefy against
a li$uid oxygen tank, so it is possible to store :<F briefly in a rocket ithout excessive
insulation. Dasoline has since been replaced by different hydrocarbon fuels, for example
RP(9 ( a highly refined grade of kerosene. !his combination is $uite practical for rockets
that need not be stored, and to this day, it is used in the first stages of most orbital
launchers, as ell as the long(range offensive missiles of %hina and 0orth ?orea.
!he most common li$uid propellants in use today&
:<F and kerosene *RP(9+. ,sed for the loer stages of most Russian and
%hinese boosters, the first stages of the )aturn ; and Atlas ;, and all stages of the
developmental "alcon 9 and "alcon 7. ;ery similar to Robert Doddard1s first
rocket. !his combination is idely regarded as the most practical for boosters that
lift off at ground level and therefore must operate at full atmospheric pressure.
:<F and li$uid hydrogen, used in the )pace )huttle orbiter, the %entaur upper
stage of the Atlas ;, )aturn ; upper stages, the neer =elta I; rocket, the #(IIA
rocket, and most stages of the 2uropean Ariane rockets.
0itrogen tetroxide *0
+ and hydrazine *0
+, ''#, or ,='#. ,sed in
military, orbital, and deep space rockets because both li$uids are storable for long
periods at reasonable temperatures and pressures. 0
6,='# is the main fuel
for the Proton rocket. !his combination is hypergolic, making for attractively
simple ignition se$uences. !he major inconvenience is that these propellants are
highly toxic, hence they re$uire careful handling.
'onopropellants such as hydrogen peroxide, hydrazine, and nitrous oxide are
primarily used for attitude control and spacecraft station(keeping here their
long(term storability, simplicity of use, and ability to provide the tiny impulses
needed, outeighs their loer specific impulse as compared to bipropellants.
#ydrogen peroxide is also used to drive the turbopumps on the first stage of the
)oyuz launch vehicle.
:i$uid fueled rockets have higher specific impulse than solid rockets and are capable of
being throttled, shut don, and restarted. <nly the combustion chamber of a li$uid fueled
rocket needs to ithstand combustion pressures and temperatures and they can be
regeneratively cooled by the li$uid propellant. <n vehicles employing turbopumps, the
propellant tanks are at very much less pressure than the combustion chamber, and thus
can be built far more lightly than a solid propellant rocket case, permitting a higher mass
ratio. "or these reasons, most orbital launch vehicles use li$uid propellants.
!he primary performance advantage of li$uid propellants is due to the oxidizer. )everal
practical li$uid oxidizers *li$uid oxygen, nitrogen tetroxide, and hydrogen peroxide+ are
available hich have much better specific impulse than the ammonium perchlorate used
in most solid rockets, hen paired ith comparable fuels. !hese facts have led to the use
of hybrid propellants& a storable oxidizer used ith a solid fuel, hich retain most virtues
of both li$uids *high I)P+ and solids *simplicity+. 66today
Hhile li$uid propellants are cheaper than solid propellants, for orbital launchers, the cost
savings do not, and historically have not matteredI the cost of propellant is a very small
portion of the overall cost of the rocket.

)ome propellants, notably <xygen and 0itrogen,
may be able to be collected from the upper atmosphere, and transferred up to lo(2arth
orbit for use in propellant depots at substantially reduced cost.
!he main difficulties ith li$uid propellants are also ith the oxidizers. !hese are
generally at least moderately difficult to store and handle due to their high reactivity ith
common materials, may have extreme toxicity *nitric acids+, moderately cryogenic *li$uid
oxygen+, or both *li$uid fluorine, ":<F( a fluorine6:<F mix+. )everal exotic oxidizers
have been proposed& li$uid ozone *<
+, %l"
, and %l"
, all of hich are unstable,
energetic, and toxic.
:i$uid fueled rockets also re$uire potentially troublesome valves and seals and thermally
stressed combustion chambers, hich increase the cost of the rocket. 'any employ
specially designed turbopumps hich raise the cost enormously due to difficult fluid flo
patterns that exist ithin the casings.
#ybrid propellants
A hybrid rocket usually has a solid fuel and a li$uid or gas oxidizer. !he fluid oxidizer
can make it possible to throttle and restart the motor just like a li$uid fueled rocket.
#ybrid rockets are also cleaner than solid rockets because practical high(performance
solid(phase oxidizers all contain chlorine, versus the more benign li$uid oxygen or
nitrous oxide used in hybrids. -ecause just one propellant is a fluid, hybrids are simpler
than li$uid rockets.
#ybrid motors suffer to major drabacks. !he first, shared ith solid rocket motors, is
that the casing around the fuel grain must be built to ithstand full combustion pressure
and often extreme temperatures as ell. #oever, modern composite structures handle
this problem ell, and hen used ith nitrous oxide and a solid rubber propellent
*#!P-+, relatively small percentage of fuel is needed anyay, so the combustion
chamber is not especially large.
!he primary remaining difficulty ith hybrids is ith mixing the propellants during the
combustion process. In solid propellants, the oxidizer and fuel are mixed in a factory in
carefully controlled conditions. :i$uid propellants are generally mixed by the injector at
the top of the combustion chamber, hich directs many small sift(moving streams of
fuel and oxidizer into one another. :i$uid fueled rocket injector design has been studied
at great length and still resists reliable performance prediction.
In a hybrid motor, the mixing happens at the melting or evaporating surface of the fuel.
!he mixing is not a ell(controlled process and generally $uite a lot of propellant is left
hich limits the efficiency and thus the exhaust velocity of the motor.
Additionally, as the burn continues, the hole don the center of the grain *the 1port1+
idens and the mixture ratio tends to become more oxidiser rich.
!here has been much less development of hybrid motors than solid and li$uid motors.
"or military use, ease of handling and maintenance have driven the use of solid rockets.
"or orbital ork, li$uid fuels are more efficient than hybrids and most development has
concentrated there. !here has recently been an increase in hybrid motor development for
nonmilitary suborbital ork&
)everal universities have recently experimented ith hybrid rockets. -righam
Loung ,niversity, the ,niversity of ,tah and ,tah )tate ,niversity launched a
student(designed rocket called ,nity I; in 977@ hich burned the solid fuel
hydroxy(terminated polybutadiene *#!P-+ ith an oxidizer of gaseous oxygen,
and in >55E launched a larger version hich burned #!P- ith nitrous oxide
)tanford ,niversity researches nitrous(oxide6paraffin hybrid motors.
!he Rochester Institute of !echnology as building a #!P- hybrid rocket to
launch small payloads into space and to several near 2arth objects. Its first launch
as scheduled for )ummer >55B.
!he =elchev 'otor utilises a binary fuel system consisting of )ucrose *or other
fuel+ dissolved in a E58 a$ueous solution of #ydrogen Peroxide. !he fuel is
atomized by injection into an expansion chamber above a catalyst bed of
'anganese =ioxide, and on contacting the catalyst, rapid decomposition of the
#ydrogen Peroxide occurs, supporting the combustion of the )ucrose.
Das propellants
A gas propellant is usually involves some sort of compressed gas. #oever, due to the
lo density and high eight of the pressure vessel, gases see little current use, but are
sometimes used for vernier engines, particularly ith inert propellants. D<F *gaseous
oxygen+ as used as one of the propellants for the -uran program for the orbital
maneuvering system.
Inert propellants
)ome rocket designs have their propellants obtain their energy from non chemical or
even external sources. "or example ater rockets use the compressed gas, typically air, to
force the ater out of the rocket. )olar thermal rockets and 0uclear thermal rockets
typically propose to use li$uid hydrogen for an
*)pecific Impulse+ of around A55M755
seconds, or in some cases ater that is exhausted as steam for an
of about 975 seconds.
Additionally for lo performance re$uirements such as attitude jets, inert gases such as
nitrogen have been employed.
Gel propellant
)ome ork has been done on gelling li$uid propellants to give a propellant that ill not
significantly leak, and to have a much loer vapor pressure.
In todayNs orld, man has sent out various space missions to various parts of this massive
universe. As the days progress, the number of these space missions increase rapidly in
number. )o proper rocket propellants are a must. Rocket propellants are very much
different from other automobile fuels. !hese fuels need to be efficient, cost(effective,
easy to store and transport, as ell as easily available.
!he history of rockets go back a long ay. During the latter part of the 17th century,
the scientific foundations for modern space travel were laid out by the great English
scientist Sir Isaac Newton (1!"#17"7$% Newton organi&ed his understanding of
physical motion into three scientific laws% 'he laws e(plain how roc)ets wor) and
why they are able to wor) in the vacuum of outer space% Newton*s laws soon began
to have a practical impact on the design of roc)ets%