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# Specific impulse (usually abbreviated Isp) is a measure of the efficiency

of rocket and jet engines. By definition, it is the impulse delivered per unit
of propellant consumed, and is dimensionally equivalent to the thrust generated
per unit propellant flow rate.[1] If mass (kilogram or slug) is used as the unit of
propellant, then specific impulse has units ofvelocity. If weight (newton or pound)
is used instead, then specific impulse has units of time (seconds). The
conversion constant between these two versions is the standard gravitational
acceleration constant (g0).[2] The higher the specific impulse, the lower the
propellant flow rate required for a given thrust, and in the case of a rocket, the
less propellant needed for a given delta-v, per the Tsiolkovsky rocket equation.
Specific impulse is a useful value to compare engines, much like miles per
gallon or liters per 100 kilometers is used for cars.[3] A propulsion method and
system with a higher specific impulse is more propellant-efficient. [1][4]
While the unit of seconds can seem confusing to laypeople, it is fairly simple to
understand as "hover-time": how long a rocket can "hover" before running out of
fuel, given the weight of that propellant/fuel. For example, how long can 1 pound
of fuel keep a 1-pound rocket hovering, if the rocket continues to be 1 pound,
despite the fact that the 1 pound of fuel is being consumed the whole time, and
the rest of the rocket has no weight. Measuring impulse in seconds assumes it is
against Earth's gravity, which means nothing if you aren't thrusting away from the
earth. Therefore, measuring Isp as a velocity means that propellant is measured in
mass rather than weight, and the example becomes "howfast can 1 kilogram of
fuel boost a 1-kilogram rocket (if you ignore the mass of the empty rocket and the
fact that the fuel is consumed)?"
Note that Isp describes efficiency in terms of amount of propellant, and does not
include the engine, structure or power source. Higher Isp means
less propellant needed to impart a given momentum. Some systems
with very high Isp (cf. ion thrusters) may have relatively very heavy/massive power
generators, and produce thrust over a long period; thus, while they are "efficient"
in terms of propellant mass carried, they may actually be quite poor at delivering
high thrust as compared to "less efficient" engine/propellant designs.
Another number that measures the same thing, usually used for air breathing jet
engines, is specific fuel consumption. Specific fuel consumption is inversely

proportional to specific impulse and the effective exhaust velocity. The actual
exhaust velocity is the average speed of the exhaust jet, which includes fuel
combustion products, nitrogen, and argon, as it leaves an air breathing engine.
The effective exhaust velocity is the exhaust velocity that the combusted fuel
and atmospheric oxygen only would need to produce the same thrust. The two
are identical for an ideal rocket working in vacuum, but are radically different for
an air-breathing jet engine that obtains extra thrust by accelerating the noncombustible components of the air.