Specific Impulse - Examples


Specific impulse of various propulsion technologies
Engine Effective exhaust velocity
(m/s, kg·m/s/kg)
Specific impulse
Energy per kg of exhaust
Turbofan jet engine
(actual V is ~300)
29,000 3,000 ~0.05
Solid rocket
2,500 250 3
Bipropellant liquid rocket
4,400 450 9.7
Ion thruster 29,000 3,000 430
Dual Stage Four Grid Electrostatic Ion Thruster 210,000 21,400 22,500
VASIMR 30,000-120,000 3,000-12,000 1,400

For a more complete list see: Spacecraft propulsion#Table of methods

An example of a specific impulse measured in time is 453 seconds, which is equivalent to an effective exhaust velocity of 4,440 m/s, for the Space Shuttle Main Engines when operating in a vacuum. An air-breathing jet engine typically has a much larger specific impulse than a rocket; for example a turbofan jet engine may have a specific impulse of 6,000 seconds or more at sea level whereas a rocket would be around 200–400 seconds.

An air-breathing engine is thus much more propellant efficient than a rocket engine, because the actual exhaust speed is much lower, the air provides an oxidizer, and air is used as reaction mass. Since the physical exhaust velocity is lower, the kinetic energy the exhaust carries away is lower and thus the jet engine uses far less energy to generate thrust (at subsonic speeds). While the actual exhaust velocity is lower for air-breathing engines, the effective exhaust velocity is very high for jet engines. This is because the effective exhaust velocity calculation essentially assumes that the propellant is providing all the thrust, and hence is not physically meaningful for air-breathing engines; nevertheless, it is useful for comparison with other types of engines.

The highest specific impulse for a chemical propellant ever test-fired in a rocket engine was 542 seconds (5,320 m/s) with a tripropellant of lithium, fluorine, and hydrogen. However, this combination is impractical; see rocket fuel.

Nuclear thermal rocket engines differ from conventional rocket engines in that thrust is created strictly through thermodynamic phenomena, with no chemical reaction. The nuclear rocket typically operates by passing hydrogen gas through a superheated nuclear core. Testing in the 1960s yielded specific impulses of about 850 seconds (8,340 m/s), about twice that of the Space Shuttle engines.

A variety of other non-rocket propulsion methods, such as ion thrusters, give much higher specific impulse but with much lower thrust; for example the Hall effect thruster on the SMART-1 satellite has a specific impulse of 1,640 s (16,100 m/s) but a maximum thrust of only 68 millinewtons. The Variable specific impulse magnetoplasma rocket (VASIMR) engine currently in development will theoretically yield 10,000−300,000 m/s but will require a large electricity source and a great deal of heavy machinery to confine even relatively diffuse plasmas, and so will be unusable for high-thrust applications such as launch from planetary surfaces.

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