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A graphic showing the process of combustion; fuel plus oxygen plus
 a source of heat combine to produce exhaust plus more heat.

To launch a rocket or to move a rocket through space, we must use a propulsion system to generate thrust. Thrust is generated through an application of Newton's third law of motion; a working gas is accelerated to the rear of the rocket engine, and the re-action is a thrust force applied to the engine in the foward direction. In solid and liquid fueled rocket engines, the working gas is produced through the burning of a fuel to produce power. Burning a fuel is called combustion, a chemical process that we study in middle or high school.

Because combustion is so important for rocket propulsion, we will review the fundamentals. Combustion is a chemical process in which a substance reacts rapidly with oxygen and gives off heat. The original substance is called the fuel, and the source of oxygen is called the oxidizer. The fuel and oxidizer can be a solid, liquid, or gas. For rocket propulsion the fuel and oxidizer are usually stored as either a liquid or a solid.

During combustion, new chemical substances are created from the fuel and the oxidizer. These substances are called exhaust. Most of the exhaust comes from chemical combinations of the fuel and oxygen. When a hydrogen-carbon-based fuel (like gasoline) burns, the exhaust includes water (hydrogen + oxygen) and carbon dioxide (carbon + oxygen). But the exhaust can also include chemical combinations from the oxidizer alone. If gasoline is burned in air, which contains 21% oxygen and 78% nitrogen, the exhaust can also include nitrous oxides (NOX, nitrogen + oxygen). The temperature of the exhaust is high because of the heat that is transferred to the exhaust during combustion. Because of the high temperatures, exhaust usually occurs as a gas, but there can be liquid or solid exhaust products as well. Soot, for example, is a form of solid exhaust that occurs in some combustion processes.

During the combustion process, as the fuel and oxidizer are turned into exhaust products, heat is generated. Interestingly, some source of heat is usually necessary to initiate combustion. Gasoline and air are both present in your automobile fuel tank; but combustion does not occur because there is no source of heat. Since heat is both required to start combustion and is itself a product of combustion, we can see why combustion takes place very rapidly. Also, once combustion gets started, we don't have to provide the heat source because the heat of combustion will keep things going. We don't have to keep lighting a campfire, it just keep burning.

To summarize, for combustion to occur three things must be present: a fuel to be burned, a source of oxygen, and a source of heat. As a result of combustion, exhausts are created and heat is released. You can control or stop the combustion process by controlling the amount of the fuel available, the amount of oxygen available, or the source of heat.

There are some unique liquid rocket propellants, called hypergolic propellants, that do not require an external heat source to begin combustion. Hypergolic propellants burn on contact with one another. The advantage of using hypergolic propellants is that the engine design is simplified because no igniter is required, and the engine "fires" every time. The disadvantage is that the propellants are highly toxic and must be kept separate at all times to prevent unwanted combustion. Hypergolic propellants have been used on missiles like the Titan series and for thrusters on some spacecraft.

Guided Tours
  • Button to Display Previous Page Propulsion System: Button to Display Next Page
  • Button to Display Previous Page Combustion: Button to Display Next Page

Match Rocket: Grade 10-12

Related Sites:
Rocket Index
Rocket Home
Beginner's Guide Home


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Editor: Tom Benson
NASA Official: Tom Benson
Last Updated: May 13 2021

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