Liquid rocket

Liquid rocket

A liquid rocket is a rocket with an engine that uses propellants in liquid form. Liquids are desirable because their reasonably high density allows the volume and hence the mass of the tanks to be relatively low, resulting in a high mass ratio. Liquid rockets have been built as monopropellant rockets using a single type of propellant, bipropellant rockets using two types of propellant, or more exotic tripropellant rockets using three types of propellant. Bipropellant liquid rockets generally use one liquid fuel and one oxidizer, such as liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. Liquid propellants are also sometimes used in hybrid rockets, in which they are combined with a solid or gaseous propellant.


The idea of liquid fuel rocket as understood in the modern context first appears in the book Исследование мировых пространств реактивными приборами (Romanisation: Issledovanie mirovh prostranst [o] v)(The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices), by Konstantin Eduardovitch Tsiolkovsky. This seminal treatise on astronautics was published in 1903.

The only known claim to liquid propellant rocket engine experiments in the nineteenth century was made by Pedro Paulet, a Peruvian scientist. [cite web | url = | title = The alleged contributions of Pedro E. Paulet to liquid-propellant rocketry | publisher = NASA] However, he did not immediately publish his work. In 1927 he wrote a letter to a newspaper in Lima, claiming he had experimented with a liquid rocket engine while he was a student in Paris three decades earlier. Historians of early rocketry experiments, among them Max Valier and Willy Ley, have given differing amounts of credence to Paulet's report. Paulet described laboratory tests of liquid rocket engines, but did not claim to have flown a liquid rocket.

The first flight of a vehicle powered by a liquid-rocket took place on March 16, 1926 at Auburn, Massachusetts, when American professor Robert H. Goddard launched a rocket which used liquid oxygen and gasoline as propellants. [cite web | url = | title = Re-Creating History | publisher = NASA] The rocket, which was dubbed "Nell", rose just 41 feet during a 2.5-second flight that ended in a cabbage field, but it was an important demonstration that liquid-fueled rockets were possible.

Advantages of liquid rockets

Unlike gases, a typical liquid propellant has a density similar to water, approximately 0.7-1.4g/cm³ (except liquid hydrogen which has a much lower density), while requiring only relatively modest pressure to prevent vapourisation. This combination of density and low pressure permits very lightweight tankage; approximately 1% of the contents for dense propellants and around 10% for liquid hydrogen (due to its low density and the mass of the required insulation).

For injection into the combustion chamber the propellant pressure needs to be greater than the chamber pressure at the injectors; this can be achieved with a pump. Suitable pumps usually use turbopumps due to their high power and lightweight, although reciprocating pumps have been employed in the past. Turbopumps are usually extremely lightweight and can give excellent performance; with an on-Earth weight well under 1% of the thrust. Indeed, overall rocket engine thrust to weight ratios including a turbopump have been as high as 133:1 with the Soviet NK-33 rocket engine.

Alternatively, a heavy tank can be used, and the pump foregone; but the delta-v that the stage can achieve is often much lower due to the extra mass of the tankage reducing performance; but for high altitude or vacuum use the tankage mass can be acceptable.

Liquid propellant rockets can be throttled in realtime, and have good control of mixture ratio; they can also be shutdown without any great drama, and, with a suitable ignition system, restarted.

Disadvantages of liquid rockets

Liquid propellants can cause a number of issues:
*because the propellant is a very large proportion of the mass of the vehicle, the center of mass shifts significantly rearward as the propellant is used; it is important that the center of mass not get too close to the center of drag of the vehicle, otherwise loss of control normally occurs.
*liquid propellants are subject to "slosh", which has frequently lead to loss of control of the vehicle
*liquid propellants often need ullage motors in zero-gravity or during staging to avoid sucking gas into engines at startup
*liquid propellants can leak, possibly leading to the formation of an explosive mixture
*turbopumps to pump liquid propellants are complex to design, and can suffer serious failure modes, such as overspeeding if they run dry or shedding fragments at high speed if metal particles from the manufacturing process enter the pump
*propellants are subject to vortexing within the tank, particularly towards the end of the burn, which can result in gas being sucked into the engine or pump
*cryogenic propellants, such as liquid oxygen freezes atmospheric water vapour into very hard crystals. This can damage or block seals and valves and can cause leaks and other failures. Avoidance of this problem often requires lengthy "chilldown" procedures which attempts to remove as much of the vapour from the system as possible.
*cryogenic propellants can cause ice to form on the outside of the tank, this can fall and damage the vehicle itself.
*liquid rockets tend to be very complex, which increases the opportunities for malfunctions.
*liquid rockets require considerable preparation immediately before launch. This makes them less practical than solid rockets for most military applications.


Types of injectors

Injectors can be as simple as a number of small diameter holes arranged in carefully constructed patterns through which the fuel and oxidiser travel. The speed of the flow is determined by the square root of the pressure drop across the injectors, the shape of the hole and other details such as the density of the propellant.

The first injectors used on the V-2 created parallel jets of fuel and oxidiser which then combusted in the chamber. This gave quite poor efficiency.

Injectors today classically consist of a number of small holes which aim jets of fuel and oxidiser so that they collide at a point in space a short distance away from the injector plate. This helps to break the flow up into small droplets that burn more easily.

The main type of injectors are
* Shower Head type
* Self Impinging doublet type
* Cross impinging triplet type
* Centrifugal or Swirling typeOther injector types include the pintle injector, which potentially permits good mixture control over a wide range of flow rates. The pintle injector was used on the Apollo Lunar Module engines and the Merlin and Kestrel engines designed by SpaceX.

The Space Shuttle Main Engine uses a system of fluted posts, which use the relative 'warmth' of the liquid oxygen to vapourise the liquid hydrogen and this improves the rate and stability of the combustion process; previous engines such as the F-1 used for Apollo program had significant issues with oscillations that led to destruction of the engines, but this was not a problem in the SSME due to this design detail.

Valentin Glushko invented the centrifugal injector in the early 1930s, and it has been almost universally used in Russian engines. Rotational motion is applied to the liquid (and sometimes the two propellants are mixed), then it is expelled through a small hole, where it forms a cone-shaped sheet that rapidly atomizes.

Combustion stability

To avoid instabilities such as "chugging" which is a relatively low speed oscillation the engine must be designed with enough pressure drop across the injectors to render the flow largely independent of the chamber pressure. This is normally achieved by using at least 20% of the chamber pressure across the injectors.

Nevertheless, particularly in larger engines, a high speed combustion oscillation is easily triggered, and these are not well understood. These high speed oscillations tend to disrupt the gas side boundary layer of the engine, and this can cause the cooling system to rapidly fail, destroying the engine. These kinds of oscillations are much more common on large engines, and plagued the development of the Saturn V, but were finally overcome.

Some combustion chambers, such as the SSME uses Helmholtz resonators as damping mechanisms to stop particular resonant frequencies from growing.

To prevent these issues the SSME injector design instead went to a lot of effort to vapourise the propellant prior to injection into the combustion chamber. Although many other features were used to ensure that instabilities could not occur, later research showed that these other features were unnecessary, and the gas phase combustion worked reliably.

Testing for stability often involves the use of small explosives. These are detonated within the chamber during operation, and causes an impulsive excitation. By examining the pressure trace of the chamber to determine how quickly the effects of the disturbance die away, it is possible to estimate the stability and redesign features of the chamber if required.


Injectors are commonly laid out so that a fuel rich layer is created at the combustion chamber wall. This reduces the temperature there, and downstream to the throat and even into the nozzle and permits the combustion chamber to be run at higher pressure, which permits a higher expansion ratio nozzle to be used which gives a higher Isp and better system performance. [Rocket Propulsion elements - Sutton Biblarz, section 8.1]

Regenerative cooling is also often used in liquid rocket engines.


Ignition can be performed in many ways, but perhaps more so with liquid propellants than other rockets a consistent and significant ignitions source is required; failure to ignite within (in some cases as small as) a few tens of milliseconds can cause overpressure of the chamber due to excess propellant. A hard start can even cause an engine to explode.

Generally, ignition systems try to apply flames across the injector surface, with a mass flow of approximately 1% of the full mass flow of the chamber.

Safety interlocks are sometimes used to ensure the presence of an ignition source before the main valves open; however reliability of the interlocks can in some cases be lower than the ignition system. Thus it depends on whether the system must fail safe, or whether overall mission success is more important. Interlocks are rarely used for upper, unmanned stages where failure of the interlock would cause loss of mission, but are present on the SSME, to shut the engines down prior to liftoff of the Space Shuttle. In addition, detection of successful ignition of the igniter is surprisingly difficult, some systems use thin wires that are cut by the flames, pressure sensors have also seen some use.

Methods of ignition include pyrotechnic, electrical (spark or hot wire), and chemical. Hypergolic propellants have the advantage of self igniting, reliably and with less change of hard starts. In the 1940s, the Russians began to start engines with hypergolic fuel, then switch over to the primary propellants after ignition.


See also

* Solid rocket
* Liquid rocket propellants

External links

* [ An online book entitled "”How to Design, Build, and Test Small Liquid-Fuel Rocket Engines”"]

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