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Pressure-fed cycle (rocket)

By Wikipedia,
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Pressure-fed rocket cycle. Propellant tanks are pressurized to supply fuel and oxidizer to the engine, eliminating the need for turbopumps.
Pressure-fed rocket cycle. Propellant tanks are pressurized to supply fuel and oxidizer to the engine, eliminating the need for turbopumps.

The pressure-fed cycle is a class of rocket engine designs. A separate gas supply, usually helium, pressurizes the propellant tanks to force fuel and oxidizer to the combustion chamber. To maintain adequate flow, the tank pressures must exceed the combustion chamber pressure.

Pressure fed engines have simple plumbing and lack complex and often unreliable turbopumps. A typical startup procedure begins with opening a valve, often a one-shot pyrotechnic device, to allow the pressurizing gas to flow through check valves into the propellant tanks. Then the propellant valves in the engine itself are opened. If the fuel and oxidizer are hypergolic, they burn on contact; non-hypergolic fuels require an igniter. Multiple burns can be conducted by merely opening and closing the propellant valves as needed. They can be operated electrically, or by gas pressure controlled by smaller electrically operated valves.

Care must be taken, especially during long burns, to avoid excessive cooling of the pressurizing gas due to adiabatic expansion. Cold helium won't liquify, but it could freeze a propellant, decrease tank pressures, or damage components not designed for low temperatures. The Apollo Lunar Module descent propulsion system was unusual in storing its helium in a supercritical but very cold state. It was warmed as it was withdrawn through a heat exchanger from the ambient temperature fuel.

Spacecraft attitude control and orbital maneuvering thrusters are almost universally pressure-fed designs. Examples include the Reaction Control (RCS) and Orbital Maneuvering (OMS) engines of the Space Shuttle orbiter; the RCS and Service Propulsion System (SPS) engines on the Apollo Command/Service Module; and the RCS, ascent and descent engines on the Apollo Lunar Module.

Some upper launcher stages also use pressure-fed engines. These include the AJ-10 second stage of the Delta II launch vehicle, the Agena and the Kestrel engine of the Falcon-1 by Space-X.

Pressure-fed engines have practical limits on propellant pressure and flow rate that make them unsuitable when high thrust is needed. The lower stages of launch vehicles use solid fuel and pump-fed liquid fuel engines instead.

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Published - July 2009

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