This is the third in a series of posts on rocket science. Part I covered the history of rocketry and Part II dealt with the operating principles of rockets. If you have not checked out the latter post, I highly recommend you read this first before diving into what is to follow.

We have established that designing a powerful rocket means suspending a bunch of highly reactant chemicals above an ultralight means of combustion. In terms of metrics this means that a rocket scientist is looking to

  • Maximise the mass ratio to achieve the highest amounts of delta-v. This translates to carrying the maximum amount of fuel with minimum supporting structure to maximise the achievable change in velocity of the rocket.
  • Maximise the specific impulse of the propellant. The higher the specific impulse of the fuel the greater the exhaust velocity of the hot gases and consequently the greater the momentum thrust of the engine.
  • Optimise the shape of the exhaust nozzle to produce the highest amounts of pressure thrust.
  • Optimise the staging strategy to reach a compromise between the upside of staging in terms of shedding useless mass and the downside of extra technical complexity involved in joining multiple rocket engines (such complexity typically adds mass).
  •  Minimise the dry mass costs of the rocket either by manufacturing simple expendable rockets at scale or by building reusable rockets.

These operational principles set the landscape of what type of rocket we want to design. In designing chemical rockets some of the pertinent questions we need to answer are

  • What propellants to use for the most potent reaction?
  • How to expel and direct the exhaust gases most efficiently?
  • How to minimise the mass of the structure?

Here, we will turn to the propulsive side of things and answer the first of these two questions.


In a chemical rocket an exothermic reaction of typically two different chemicals is used to create high-pressure gases which are then directed through a nozzle and converted into a high-velocity directed jet.

From the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation we know that the momentum thrust depends on the mass flow rate of the propellants and the exhaust velocity,

F_t = \dot{m} v_{exit}

The most common types of propellant are:

  • Monopropellant: a single pressurised gas or liquid fuel that disassociates when a catalyst is introduced. Examples include hydrazine, nitrous oxide and hydrogen peroxide.
  • Hypergolic propellant: two liquids that spontaneously react when combined and release energy without requiring external ignition to start the reaction.
  • Fuel and oxidiser propellant: a combination of two liquids or two solids, a fuel and an oxidiser, that react when ignited. Combinations of solid fuel and liquid oxidiser are also possible as a hybrid propellant system. Typical fuels include liquid hydrogen and kerosene, while liquid oxygen and nitric acid are often used as oxidisers. In liquid propellant rockets the oxidiser and fuel are typically stored separately and mixed upon ignition in the combustion chamber, whereas solid propellant rockets are designed premixed.

Rockets can of course be powered by sources other than chemical reactions. Examples of this are smaller, low performance rockets such as attitude control thruster, that use escaping pressurised fluids to provide thrust. Similarly, a rocket may be powered by heating steam that then escapes through a propelling nozzle. However, the focus here is purely on chemical rockets.

Solid propellants

Solid propellants are made of a mixture of different chemicals that are blended into a liquid, poured into a cast and then cured into a solid. At its simplest, these chemical blends or “composites” are comprised of four different functional ingredients:

  • Solid oxidiser granules.
  • Flakes or powders of exothermic compounds.
  • Polymer binding agent.
  • Additives to stabilise or modify the burn rate.

Gunpowder is an example of a solid propellant that does not use a polymer binding agent to hold the propellant together. Rather the charcoal fuel and potassium nitrate oxidiser are compressed to hold their shape. A popular solid rocket fuel is ammonium perchlorate composite propellant (APCP) which uses a mixture of 70% granular ammonium perchlorate as an oxidiser, with 20% aluminium powder as a fuel, bound together using 10% polybutadiene acrylonitrile (PBAN).

Solid propellant rocket components (via Wikimedia Commons)

Solid propellant rocket components (via Wikimedia Commons URL)

Solid propellant rockets have been used much less frequently than liquid fuel rockets. However, there are some advantages, which can make solid propellants favourable to liquid propellants in some military applications (e.g. intercontinental ballistic missiles, ICBMs). Some of the advantages of solid propellants are that:

  • They are easier to store and handle.
  • They are simpler to operate with.
  • They have less components. There is no need for a separate combustion chamber and turbo pumps to pump the propellants into the combustion chamber. The solid propellant (also called “grain”) is ignited directly in the propellant storage casing.
  • They are much denser than liquid propellants and therefore reduce the fuel tank size (lower mass). Furthermore, solid propellants can be used as a load-bearing component, which further reduces the structural weight of the rocket. The cured solid propellant can readily be encased in a filament-wound composite rocket shell, which has more favourable strength-to-weight properties of the metallic rocket shells typically used for liquid rockets.

Apart from their use as ICBMs, solid rockets are known for their role as boosters. The simplicity and relatively low cost compared with liquid-fuel rockets means that solid rockets are a better choice when large amounts of cheap additional thrust is required. For example, the Space Shuttle used two solid rocket boosters to complement the onboard liquid propellant engines.

The disadvantage of solid propellants is that their specific impulse, and hence the amount of thrust produced per unit mass of fuel, is lower than for liquid propellants. The mass ratio of solid rockets can actually be greater than that of liquid rockets as a result of the more compact design and lower structural mass, but the exhaust velocities are much lower. The combustion process in solid rockets depends on the surface area of the fuel, and as such any air bubbles, cracks or voids in the solid propellant cast need to be prevented. Therefore, quite expensive quality assurance measures such as ultrasonic inspection or x-rays are required to assure the quality of the cast. The second problem with air bubbles in the cast is that the amount of oxidiser is increased (via the oxygen in the air) which results in local temperature hot spots and increased burn rate. Such local imbalances can spiral out of control to produce excessive temperatures and pressures, and ultimately lead to catastrophic failure. Another disadvantage of solid propellants are their binary operation mode. Once the chemical reaction has started and the engines have been ignited, it is very hard to throttle back or control the reaction. The propellant can be arranged in a manner to provide a predetermined thrust profile, but once this has started it is much hard to make adjustments on the fly. Liquid propellant rockets on the other hand use turbo pumps to throttle the propellant flow.

Liquid propellants

Liquid propellants have more favourable specific impulse measures than solid rockets. As such they are more efficient at propelling the rocket for a unit mass of reactant mass. This performance advantage is due to the superior oxidising capabilities of liquid oxidisers. For example, traditional liquid oxidisers such as liquid oxygen or hydrogen peroxide result in higher specific impulse measures than the ammonium perchlorate in solid rockets. Furthermore, as the liquid fuel and oxidiser are pumped into the combustion chamber, a liquid-fuelled rocket can be throttled, stopped and restarted much like a car or a jet engine. In liquid-fuelled rockets the combustion process is restricted to the combustion chamber, such that only this part of the rocket is exposed to the high pressure and temperature loads, whereas in solid-fuelled rockets the propellant tanks themselves are subjected to high pressures. Liquid propellants are also cheaper than solid propellants as they can be sourced from the upper atmosphere and require relatively little refinement compared to the composite manufacturing process of solid propellants. However, the cost of the propellant only accounts for around 10% of the total cost of the rocket and therefore these savings are typically negligible. Incidentally, the high proportion of costs associated with the structural mass of the rocket is why re-usability of rocket stages is such an important factor in reducing the cost of spaceflight.


Schematic of a liquid-fuelled rocket (via Wikimedia Commons)

The main drawback of liquid propellants is the difficulty of storage. Traditional liquid oxidisers are highly reactive and very toxic such that they need to be handled with care and properly insulated from other reactive materials. Second, the most common oxidiser, liquid oxygen, needs to be stored at very low cryogenic temperatures and this increases the complexity of the rocket design. What is more, additional components such as turbopumps and the associated valves and seals are needed that are entirely absent from solid-fuelled rockets.

Modern spaceflight is dominated by two liquid propellant mixtures:

  1. Liquid oxygen (LOX) and kerosene (RP-1): As discussed in the previous post this mix of oxidiser and fuel is predominantly used for lower stages (i.e. to get off the launch pad), due to the higher density of kerosene compared to liquid hydrogen. Kerosene, as a higher density fuel, allows for better ratios of propellant to tankage mass which is favourable for the mass ratio. Second, high density fuels work better in an atmospheric pressure environment. Historically, the Atlas V, Saturn V and Soyuz rockets have used LOX and RP-1 for the first stages and so does the SpaceX Falcon rocket today.
  2. Liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen: This combination is mostly used for the upper stages that propel a vehicle into orbit. The lower density of the liquid hydrogen requires higher expansion ratios (gas pressure – atmospheric pressure) and therefore works more efficiently at higher altitudes. The Atlas V, Saturn V and modern Delta family or rockets all used this propellant mix for the upper rocket stages.

The choice of propellant mixture for different stages requires certain tradeoffs. Liquid hydrogen provides higher specific impulse than kerosene, but its density is around 7 times lower and therefore liquid hydrogen occupies much more space for the same mass of fuel. As a result, the required volume and associated mass of tankage, fuel pumps and pipes is much greater. Both the the specific impulse of the propellant and tankage mass influence the potential delta-v of the rocket, and hence liquid hydrogen, chemically the more efficient fuel, is not necessarily the best option for all rockets.

Although the exact choice of fuel is not straightforward I will propose two general rules of thumb that explain why kerosene is used for the early stages and liquid hydrogen for the upper stages:

  1. In general, the denser the fuel the heavier the rocket on the launch pad. This means that the rocket needs to provide more thrust to get off the ground and it carries this greater amount of thrust throughout the entire duration of the burn. As fuel is being depleted, the greater thrust of denser fuel rockets means that the rocket reaches orbit earlier and as a result minimises drag losses in the atmosphere.
  2. Liquid hydrogen fuelled rockets generally produce the lightest design and are therefore used on those parts of the spacecraft that actually need to be propelled into orbit or escape Earth’s gravity to venture into deep space.

Engine and Nozzle

In combustive rockets, the chemical reaction between the fuel and oxidiser creates a high temperature, high pressure gas inside the combustion chamber. If the combustion chamber were closed and symmetric, the internal pressure acting on the chamber walls would cause equal force in all directions and the rocket would remain stationary. For anything interesting to happen we must therefore open one end of the combustion chamber to allow the hot gases to escape. As a result of the hot gases pressing against the wall opposite to the opening, a net force in the direction of the closed end is induced.

Rocket thrust

Net thrust produced by rocket (via Wikimedia Commons)

Rocket pioneers, such as Goddard, realised early on that the shape of the nozzle is of crucial importance in creating maximum thrust.  A converging nozzle accelerates the escaping gases by means of the conservation of mass. However, converging nozzles are fundamentally limited to fluid flows of Mach 1, the speed of sound, and this is known as the choke condition. In this case, the nozzle provides relatively little thrust and the rocket is purely propelled by the net force acting on the close combustion chamber wall.

To further accelerate the flow, a divergent nozzle is required at the choke point. A convergent-divergent nozzle can therefore be used to create faster fluid flows. Crucially, the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation (conservation of momentum) indicates that the exit velocity of the hot gases is directly proportional to the amount of thrust produced. A second advantage is that the escaping gases also provide a force in the direction of flight by pushing on the divergent section of the nozzle.

Rocket nozzle expansion

Underexpanded, perfectly expanded, overexpanded and grossly overexpanded de Laval nozzles (via Wikimedia Commons).

The exit static pressure of the exhaust gases, i.e. the pressure of the gases if the exhaust jet was brought to rest, is a function of the pressure created inside the combustion chamber and the ratio of throat area to exit area of the nozzle. If the exit static pressure of the exhaust gases is greater than the surrounding ambient air pressure, the nozzle is known to be underexpanded. On the other hand, if the exit static pressure falls below the ambient pressure then the nozzle is known to be overexpanded. In this case two possible scenarios are possible. The supersonic air flow exiting the nozzle will induce a shock wave at some point along the flow. As the exhaust gas particles travel at speeds greater than the speed of sound, other gas particles upstream cannot “get out of the way” quickly enough before the rest of the flow arrives. Hence, the pressure progressively builds until at some point the properties of the fluid, density, pressure, temperature and velocity, change instantaneously. Thus, across the shock wave the gas pressure of an overexpanded nozzle will instantaneously shift from lower than ambient to exactly ambient pressure. If shock waves, visible by shock diamonds, form outside the nozzle, the nozzle is known as simply overexpanded. However, if the shock waves form inside the nozzle this is known as grossly overexpanded.

In an ideal world a rocket would continuously operate at peak efficiency, the condition where the nozzle is perfectly expanded throughout the entire flight. This can intuitively be explained using the rocket thrust equation introduced in the previous post:

f = \dot{m} v_{exit} + \left(p_{exit} - p_{ambient}\right) A_{exit} = \text{momentum thrust} + \text{pressure thrust}

Peak efficiency of the rocket engine occurs when p_{exit} = p_{ambient} such that the pressure thrust contribution is equal to zero. This is the condition of peak efficiency as the contribution of the momentum thrust is maximised while removing any penalties from over- or underexpanding the nozzle. An underexpanded nozzle means that p_{exit} > p_{ambient}, and while this condition provides extra pressure thrust, v_{exit} is lower and some of the energy that has gone into combusting the gases has not been converted into kinetic energy. In an overexpanded nozzle the pressure differential is negative, p_{exit} < p_{ambient}. In this case, v_{exit} is fully developed but the overexpansion induces a drag force on the rocket. If the nozzle is grossly overexpanded such that a shock wave occurs inside the nozzle, p_{exit} may still be greater than p_{ambient} but the supersonic jet separates from the divergent nozzle prematurely (see diagram below) such that A_{exit} decreases. In outer space p_{ambient} decreases and therefore the thrust created by the nozzle increases. However, A_{exit} is also decreasing as the flow separates earlier from the divergent nozzle. Thus, some of the increased efficiency of reduced ambient pressure is negated.

A perfectly expanded nozzle is only possible using a variable throat area or variable exit area nozzle to counteract the ambient pressure decrease with gaining altitude. As a result, fixed area nozzles become progressively underexpanded as the ambient pressure decreases during flight, and this means most nozzles are grossly overexpanded at takeoff. Some various exotic nozzles such as plug nozzles, stepped nozzles and aerospikes have been proposed to adapt to changes in ambient pressure and increasing thrust at higher altitudes. The extreme scenario obviously occurs once the rocket has left the Earth’s atmosphere. The nozzle is now so grossly overexpanded that the extra weight of the nozzle structure outweighs any performance gained from the divergent section.

Thus we can see that just as in the case of the propellants the design of individual components is not a straightforward matter and requires detailed tradeoffs between different configurations. This is what makes rocket science such a difficult endeavour.

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