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Space Shuttle

Propulsion Systems

The power needed to lift a space shuttle into orbit comes from two solid-fuel rockets, each 12 ft (4 m) wide and 149 ft (45.5 m) long, and from the shuttle's three built-in, liquid-fuel engines. The fuel used in the solid rockets is compounded of aluminum powder, ammonium perchlorate, and a special polymer that binds the other ingredients into a rubbery matrix. This mixture is molded into a long prism with a hollow core that resembles an 11-pointed star in cross section. This shape exposes the maximum possible surface area of burning fuel during launch, increasing combustion efficiency.

The two solid-fuel rockets each contain 1.1 million lb (500,000 kg) at ignition, together produce 6.6 million pounds (29.5 million N) of thrust, and burn out only two minutes after the shuttle leaves the launch pad. At solid-engine burnout, the shuttle is at an altitude of 161,000 ft (47,000 m) and 212 mi (452 km) down range of launch site. (In rocketry, "down range" distance is the horizontal distance, as measured on the ground, that a rocket has traveled since launch, as distinct from the greater distance it has traveled along its actual flight path.) At this point, explosive devices detach the solid-fuel rockets from the shuttle's large, external fuel tank. The rockets return to Earth via parachutes, dropping into the Atlantic Ocean at a speed of 55 MPH (90 km/h). They can then be collected by ships, returned to their manufacturer (Morton Thiokol Corp.), refurbished and refilled with solid fuel, and used again in a later shuttle launch.

The three liquid-fuel engines built into the shuttle itself have been described as the most efficient engines ever built; at maximum thrust, they achieve 99% combustion efficiency. (This number describes combustion efficiency, not end-use efficiency. As dictated by the laws of physics, less than half of the energy released in combustion can be communicated to the shuttle as kinetic energy, even by an ideal rocket motor.) The shuttle's main engines are fueled by liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen stored in the external fuel tank (built by Martin Marietta Corp.), which is 27.5 ft (8.4 m) wide and 154 ft (46.2 m) long. The tank itself is actually two tanks—one for liquid oxygen and the other for liquid hydrogen—covered by a single, aerodynamic sheath. The tank is kept cold (below -454°F [-270°C]) to keep its hydrogen and oxygen in their liquid state, and is covered with an insulating layer of stiff foam to keep its contents cold. Liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen are pumped into the shuttle's three engines through lines 17 in (43 cm) in diameter that carry 1,035 gal (3,900 l) of fuel per second. Upon ignition, each of the liquid-fueled engines develops 367,000 lb (1.67 million N) of thrust.

The three main engines turn off at approximately 522 seconds, when the shuttle has reached an altitude of 50 mi (105 km) and is 670 mi (1,426 km) down range of the launch site. At this point, the external fuel tank is also jettisoned. Its fall into the sea is not controlled, however, and it is not recoverable for future use.

Final orbit is achieved by means of two small engines, the Orbital Maneuvering System (OMS) engines located on external pods at the rear of the orbiter's fuselage. The OMS engines are fired first to insert the orbiter into an elliptical orbit with an apogee (highest altitude) of 139 mi (296 km) and a perigee (lowest altitude) of 46 mi (98 km). They are fired again to nudge the shuttle into a final, circular orbit with a radius of 139 mi (296 km). All these figures may vary slightly from mission to mission.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Adam Smith Biography to Spectroscopic binarySpace Shuttle - Mission Of The Space Shuttle, The Orbiter, Propulsion Systems, Orbital Maneuvers, Orbital Activities - Structure of the STS