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Solar thermal rocket

By Wikipedia,
the free encyclopedia,

Solar thermal propulsion is a form of spacecraft propulsion that makes use of solar power to directly heat reaction mass, and therefore does not require an electrical generator as most other forms of solar-powered propulsion do. A solar thermal rocket only has to carry the means of capturing solar energy, such as concentrators and mirrors. The heated propellant is fed through a conventional rocket nozzle to produce thrust. The engine thrust is directly related to the surface area of the solar collector and to the local intensity of the solar radiation.

In the shorter term, solar thermal propulsion has been proposed as a good candidate for use in reusable inter-orbital tugs, as it is a high-efficiency low-thrust system that can be refuelled with relative ease.

There are two basic solar thermal propulsion concepts, differing primarily in the method by which they use solar power to heat the propellant.

  • Indirect solar heating involves pumping the propellant through passages in a heat exchanger that is heated by solar radiation. The windowless heat exchanger cavity concept is a design taking this radiation absorption approach.
  • Direct solar heating involves exposing the propellant directly to solar radiation. The rotating bed concept is one of the preferred concepts for direct solar radiation absorption; it offers higher specific impulse than other direct heating designs by using a retained seed (tantalum carbide or hafnium carbide) approach. The propellant flows through the porous walls of a rotating cylinder, picking up heat from the seeds, which are retained on the walls by the rotation. The carbides are stable at high temperatures and have excellent heat transfer properties.

Due to limitations in the temperature that heat exchanger materials can withstand (approximately 2800 K), the indirect absorption designs cannot achieve specific impulses beyond 900 seconds (9 kN·s/kg). The direct absorption designs allow higher propellant temperatures and therefore higher specific impulses, approaching 1200 seconds. Even the lower specific impulse represents a significant increase over that of conventional chemical rockets, however, an increase that can provide substantial payload gains (45 percent for a LEO-to-GEO mission) at the expense of increased trip time (14 days compared to 10 hours).

Currently, only indirect solar thermal propulsion systems have reached proof of concept stage. Small-scale hardware has been designed and fabricated for the Air Force Rocket Propulsion Laboratory (AFRPL) for ground test evaluation. Systems with 10 to 100 N of thrust have been investigated by SART.


Most proposed designs for solar thermal rockets use hydrogen as their propellant due to its low molecular weight which gives excellent specific impulse of 900 seconds (9 kN·s/kg)).

Unfortunately, although it gives excellent specific impulse, hydrogen is not space storable, but many other substances could also be used. Water gives quite poor performance of 190 seconds (1.9 kN·s/kg), but requires only simple equipment to purify and handle, and is space storeable and this has very seriously been proposed for interplanetary use, using in-situ resources.

Ammonia has been proposed as a propellant. It offers higher specific impulse than water, but is easily storable, with a boiling point of -77 degrees celcius. The exhaust diassociates into Hydrogen and Nitrogen, leading to a lower average molecular weight, and thus a higher Isp (65% of Hydrogen).

This architecture outperforms architectures involving electrolysis and liquification of hydrogen from water by more than an order of magnitude, since electrolysis requires heavy power generators, whereas distillation only requires a simple and compact heat source, (either nuclear or solar); so the propellant production rate is correspondingly far higher for any given initial mass of equipment. However its use does rely on having clear ideas of the location of water ice in the solar system, particularly on lunar and asteroidal bodies, and such information is not known, other than that the bodies with the asteroid belt and further from the Sun are expected to be rich in water ice.

Solar Thermal for ground launch

Solar Thermal rockets have been proposedas a system for launching a small personal spacecraft into Orbit. The design is based on a high altitude Airship which uses its envelope to focus sunlight onto a tube. The propellant, which would likely be Ammonia, is then fed through to produce thrust. Possible design flaws include whether the engine could produce enough thrust to overcome drag, and whether the skin of the Airship wouldn't fail at hypersonic velocities. This has many similarities to the Orbital Airship proposed by JP Aerospace.

  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ DLR Solar Thermal Propulsion
  3. ^ Neofuel, using abundant off-earth resources for interplanetary transport
  4. ^ NewMars, Solar Thermal Tech for Ground Launch?

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Published in July 2009.

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