For a rocket engine to be propellant efficient, it is important that the maximum pressures possible be created on the walls of the chamber and nozzle by a specific amount of propellant; as this is the source of the thrust. This can be achieved by all of: Heating the propellant to as high a temperature as possible (using a high energy fuel, containing hydrogen and carbon and sometimes metals such as aluminium, or even using nuclear energy)
Using a low specific density gas (as hydrogen rich as possible). Using propellants which are, or decompose to, simple molecules with few degrees of freedom to maximize translational velocity. Since all of these things minimise the mass of the propellant used, and since pressure is proportional to the mass of propellant present to be accelerated as it pushes on the engine, and since from Newton's third law the pressure that acts on the engine also reciprocally acts on the propellant, it turns out that for any given engine the speed that the propellant leaves the chamber is unaffected by the chamber pressure (although the thrust is proportional). However, speed is significantly affected by all three of the above factors and the exhaust speed is an excellent measure of the engine propellant efficiency. This is termed exhaust velocity, and after allowance is made for factors that can reduce it, the effective exhaust velocity is one of the most important parameters of a rocket engine (although weight, cost, ease of manufacture etc. are usually also very important). For aerodynamic reasons the flow goes sonic ("chokes") at the narrowest part of the nozzle, the 'throat'. Since the speed of sound in gases increases with the square root of temperature, the use of hot exhaust gas greatly improves performance. By comparison, at room temperature the speed of sound in air is about 340 m/s while the speed of sound in the hot gas of a rocket engine can be over 1700 m/s; much of this performance is due to the higher temperature, but additionally rocket propellants are chosen to be of low molecular mass, and this also gives a higher velocity compared to air.
Expansion in the rocket nozzle then further multiplies the speed, typically between 1.5 and 2 times, giving a highly collimated hypersonic exhaust jet. The speed increase of a rocket nozzle is mostly determined by its area expansion ratio—the ratio of the area of the throat to the area at the exit, but detailed properties of the gas are also important. Larger ratio nozzles are more massive but are able to extract more heat from the combustion gases, increasing the exhaust velocity.
Nozzle efficiency is affected by operation in the atmosphere because atmospheric pressure changes with altitude; but due to the supersonic speeds of the gas exiting from a rocket engine, the pressure of the jet may be either below or above ambient, and equilibrium between the two is not reached at all altitudes (See Diagram).
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