Cold-Gas thruster
Cold-Gas thruster

What innovations does Propulsion and Aerothermodynamics involve?

The domain of Propulsion and Aerothermodynamics is important for maintaining and widening our gateway to space. It takes extreme speed to reach orbit and precisely controlled thrust firing to get a mission where it needs to be. Landing on Earth or other planetary surfaces is just as challenging – particularly because the high velocity that carried the spacecraft into space needs to be bled away to ensure a survivable touchdown.

Within the field of chemical propulsion, the creation of new low-toxicity 'green' propellants is one new innovation, as well as the fostering of micro-thruster systems for enhanced in-orbit control.

GIES-15 RF ion source on a thrust balance in the ESA Propulsion Laboratory

And while ion and plasma engines are now mature technologies, a number of other varieties of electric propulsion are also under study, ibelonging to the categories of electrostatic, electromagnetic and electrothermal systems, as an enabling technology for increasing spacecraft lifetimes and performance.


Further advanced concepts being considered within the domain are nuclear thermal propulsion, which employs heat from a fission reactor – and solar thermal propulsion, which relies on the heat of the Sun to propel fuel, as well as hybrid rocket engines, which make use of solid fuel in combination with liquid or gaseous propellants. Use of air-breathing engines for advanced launch vehicles is also in scope.

In the shorter term, Propulsion and Aerothermodynamics is also examining methods of improving current launchers and other types of propulsion systems, developing analysis and simulation tools along with novel components such as valves, regulators, tanks and ground support equipment (GSE) employed for rocket launches.

Advanced fluid dynamics studies of aerothermodynamics processes meanwhile give designers insight into what occurs both inside and outside a vehicle during its flight out of the atmosphere and its re-entry back within it. Computational aerothermodynamics builds the databases needed for propulsion systems and the required performance from thermal protection systems.

Last update: 2 October 2012

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