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AE6450 Fall 2004

Lecture #6
Monopropellant Thrusters

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Monopropellant Thrusters

Regulator Valve Thruster

Single propellant

Recall that monopropellant thrusters are used for many

low-thrust applications – low total impulse.
1. Cold gas thrusters
2. Hydrazine (+ catalyst)
3. Hydrogen Peroxide (+ catalyst)
4. Resistojet (electric)
These are relatively inexpensive thrusters, but their
performance is also relatively low.

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Cold Gas Thruster
Candidate gases

He (Isp ~ 180 sec.) vacuum, large ε

Nitrogen (Isp ~ 80 sec.)

c* ∝ γ RT0
High gamma and low molecular weight help get a high exhaust velocity

Other considerations include

•storage pressure (thus tank weight),
•required gas mass (related to density).

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Cold Gas Thrusters (contd)

Energy comes from high gas storage pressure expelled via a

simple blow-down system. Typical propellants (pressurized)
include He and N2.
· Low thrust
· Low performance
· Simple and cheap
· No need for a heat addition system
· Non-toxic (e.g.: rendezvous with ISS)
· Used primarily for attitude control.

Courtesy, U. Queensland, HYSHOT Flight Program hyper/hyshot/
“.. approx. 300N of thrust w/ bottle pressure of 21MPa. .. could
also turn valve on and off reliably in 1 ms.”

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Cold Gas Thruster Example

Initial tank pressure is 100 atmospheres (1.01E7 Pa). Initial temperature in

the tank is 300K. Tank volume is 0.2 m3. Nozzle expansion ratio is 20.
Nozzle is a 15-degree conical nozzle.
Throat area is 1 cm2 Thruster is operated in vacuum (space).
Further assume an isothermal system so that with short impulses, heat
will leak into the tank from the rest of the satellite to maintain stagnation
temperature of 300K.
Assume a pressure regulated system so that the nozzle upstream
stagnation pressure is 10 atmospheres. Thus, the thrust level can be kept
steady until the tank pressure falls to 10 atm.
Assume the flow below the regulator is isentropic.

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For N2, molecular weight is 28.02.
This gives R = 296 Joules per Kg per Kelvin.)

Specific heat ratio gamma is 1.4 fully diatomic at 300K)

a) Determine the initial and final nitrogen mass in the tank.

p = ρ RT p = RT
(1.01E 7)(0.2)
mi = = 22.75Kg
The final pressure in the tank is 1.01E6 Pa. Temperature is unchanged from 300K.

Residual mass is m f = 2.275Kg

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b) Determine the c* and (isentropic) CF
Assume constant T0 (isothermal) T0 = Ti = 300 K
γ RT0 1.4(296)(300)
c* = γ +1
= 2.4
= 435.2m / s
 2  2(γ −1)  2  0.8
γ  1.4  
 γ + 1  2.4 
To get CF, we must first know Pe/P0 for ε = 20.
(γ +1) For gamma = 1.4, this gives
1/ 2
 γ −1  2  2(γ −1)
   γ + 1 0.2588
 2    ε= 1/ 2
  γ −1  
1/ 2   pe 0.2857   pe 
1/ γ
1 − 
 γ 
pe     pe  1 −     pc 
  pc    pc    pc    
 

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Trial & error solution
From charts of this function, guess pressure ratio of 0.002 for ε=20
Gives ε = 24.05 (too high)
Change guess of pressure ratio to 0.003
Gives ε = 18.23 (too low)
Linear interpolation : at ε = 20, pressure ratio = 0.0027.
Exact solution = 0.00262

Nozzle efficiency factor for divergence losses in the 15-degree conical nozzle:
λ = (1 + Cosα ) = 0.983
γ −1 1/ 2
 2 γ +1 
 2γ  2  γ −1   pe  
γ ( pe − pa )
CF = λ   γ + 1 1 −     +ε
 γ − 1     p0    p0
 
Vacuum: Pa = 0.

Gives CF in vacuum = 1.662

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(c) Find Isp c* (435.2)(1.662)
I sp = C F = = 73.74sec.
g0 9.81
(d) Assuming choked flow, find the mass flow rate of propellant,
thrust, and total impulse available in this system.
T At CF p0 Ap
m p = CF = = t 0
I sp g 0  C c * c*
g0  F 
 g0 
m p = 0.232kg / s
From Part a, the mass used up is 20.475 kg. Therefore,

“Burn” time is 88.25 seconds

Thrust is 167.9N and total impulse (=thrust*burn-time) is 14.8kN-s

- assuming that the tank stays at constant temperature.

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“Real” Cold Gas System (not isothermal)
If the system is “on” for some time, we can no longer assume that the tank
temperature is constant (isothermal).

As the gas is expelled, its temperature will drop. (see Humble p. 144-145).

As a result, c* decreases, Isp decreases, mass flow rate of propellant

increases for the same thrust.

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Decomposition-based Monopropellant Systems

Relative to cold-gas systems, monopropellant systems that release heat

due to a catalytic reaction have
•higher performance and Isp, and
•use liquid storage, which means
•more compact, and
•lower pressure (hence lower tank weight).

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Candidate propellants:Only Hydrogen Peroxide, n-Propyl Nitrate, and
Hydrazine thrusters have been flown. Propyl nitrate used to start jet
engines; rejected due to shock sensitivity.
Hydrogen peroxide decomposes slowly, causing tank pressure
increase, and propellant dilution. Hydrazine is now the mono-
propellant of choice.
Hydrogen Peroxide (H2O2): Usually expressed as a percentage of
H2O2 in a solution with water :
% by m 1 atm. Boiling Average density, kg/m3 at Storage
mass temp. 77F temperature
95% 32.6 294.8F 1414 Room temp.
98% 33.4 299.2F 1432 Room temp.

Note: Drug-store hydrogen peroxide is about 30%

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Hydrogen Peroxide Decomposition
H2O2 deteriorates with time as it naturally decomposes into H2O and O2.
Hazel and Huang give a concentration decrease rate of 1% per year.

In the presence of a catalyst (Humble, p. 242)

2 H 2O2 (l ) + nH 2O(l ) → (n + 2) H 2O( g ) + O2 ( g ) − Q

Q = 108.48kJ of heat released. (exothermic)

Where “n” is determined by the original concentration of H2O2.

Higher concentrations give better performance due to higher

temperatures and lower molecular weights in the exhaust products
(avoid vaporizing inert H2O).

This reaction is fairly complete in the presence of a catalyst.

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Early Catalysts for Hydrogen Peroxide
Early catalysts where liquids were injected into H2O2:

Potassium permanganate KMnO4; sodium permanganate (German V-2

gas generator application)

These systems worked, but required complex injection valving, timing

etc. to manage the reaction.

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More Recent Catalysts
Later H2O2 catalysts were solid, wire screens impregnated with platinum or
palladium (or silver plated) and layered between the injector and the


Catalyst Pack (wire screens)

~5cm long with Ac to allow ~250kg/m2-s

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Performance of H2O2 thrusters
The decomposition of H2O2 is relatively cool by rocket engine
standards, say 1000K to 1500K for the exhaust products depending on

100% H2O2 gives a temperature of 1250K ~ 1277K

Although hot, many metals retain their strength at these temperatures,

therefore, H2O2 thrusters do not require active cooling (radiation only).

At these temperatures, the Isp of an H2O2 system is 140 sec. to 190 sec.

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Hydrazine Monopropellant (N2H4)
Very popular and widely used monopropellant.
•Highest performance (of monopropellants).
•Dense liquid;
Molecular weight: 32.05
Density 1010 kg/m3.
Boiling temperature 235.4F.
Liquid storable at room temperature.

N2 H2

Heater & Catalyst Pack

Mass flux ~200kg/m2-s through catalyst.

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Hydrazine Reactions
For hydrazine, there are 2 reactions – one exothermic and one

3 N 2 H 4 → 4 NH 3 + N 2 − 336.28 KJ
in the presence of catalyst.

But also, 4 NH 3 → 2 N 2 + 6 H 2 + 184.4 KJ absorbs heat.

This reaction absorbs heat and this reduces Isp.

With proper design of the catalyst bed, we can limit the amount of
ammonia that is dissociated according to the above equation (say
50%) [ range is from 30 to 80%].

Specific heat ratio gamma increases from 1.2 at 20% ammonia

decomposition to 1.36 at 100%. At 50%, gamma is ~ 1.25
The performance of this system is a direct function of the amount of
ammonia decomposed in the above equation.

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Catalysts for N2H4 (Mariner)

In the ‘60s, nitrogen tetroxide “slugs” were used as a liquid igniter to

raise the temperature of a monopropellant system so that the reaction
would continue. However, this required a priori knowledge of the
number of starts required.

Later catalysts (current)

Currently, beds of ceramic pellets coated with iridium (Shell 405 pellets,
1962) allow the N2H4 to decompose without an igniter. Multiple restarts
are also possible.

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Hydrazine Thruster Performance
For steady-state operation with a “hot” catalyst bed..
Brown: Hydrazine, Isp = 230s at sea-level; c*=3952 ft/s; Tf= 1394K. (Range:
220-230s vacuum Isp )

Monopropellant thrusters are generally pulsed to provide attitude control.

Some short time is needed to heat the catalyst and hydrazine up as the thrust
comes up. Shown below is a qualitative thrust profile after a cold start.
Ignition delays may be 10-20 ms at catalyst and propellant temperature of 40 to
70F; delay down to 1ms at catalyst bed temperature of 500F. Pressure rise
time to 90% of steady state > 15ms, with tail-off time to 10% of steady state



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Hydrazine Pulsed Thrust Profiles
If the system is cold (very short pulses or a long interval between pulses)
the Isp and thrust can fail to reach steady-state values.
230 Steady state Isp

Isp 107 ms pulse

14 ms pulse
“cold” Isp
60deg.F exhaust

1sec 10sec 100sec

Time Between Pulses

Negative pulses (OFF from steady-state ON) are used for attitude-control –
e.g. Magellan during Venus orbit insertion.

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Catalyst Life

Cold starts create pressure pulses in the catalyst bed that damage the
pellets over time. For this reason (and performance reasons discussed
above), monopropellant hydrazine thrusters often have heaters to keep
the system warm (475K – 600K). With heaters, catalyst beds can last up to
500,000 to 1 million pulse cycles. (Brown, pg.62, Voyager.

FLEETSATCOM: 0.1lb thrusters maintained at 315C; rated for 1 million

Voyager: 200 C; 400,000 pulses.

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Monopropellant Thruster Weight Correlation

Weight (lbs ) = 0.34567 F 0.55235

Note: Above is for a thruster with a single valve; least squares fit to
data in the range
Where thrust is between 1 and 150lb, and weight up to 5lb.
In addition, the weight tends towards the weight of the valve at the low
thrust limit.
Minimum valve weight is roughly 0.4lb

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Electrothermal Monopropellant Thrusters

This type of thruster uses electrical energy to heat a monopropellant

working fluid (or add additional heat to the decomposition

1. Resistojet – heat transfer through resistance element.

2. Arcjet – heat transfer through electrical arcing.

For a resistojet with hydrazine the Isp can be ~ 300 sec.

For a resistojet with hydrogen (H2) the Isp can approach 840 sec.
However power is high and T/We is low (power conversion ~65%
to 90%. )

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Arcjets are less efficient at converting power to Isp (~20 to 30%) but higher
Isps are possible. 500sec. to 1500sec. (still low T/We).

Variations include Microwave heated flow and coupling of magnetic fields to

rotate the electrical discharge (magnetoplasmadynamic MPD)

(see Humble p. 525)

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Catalytic vs. Electrothermal Hydrazine Thrusters

Relative to traditional hydrazine monopropellant thrusters,

electrothermal thrusters –

•Are capable of higher Isp

•Require additional spacecraft power
•Have higher weight (lower T/We)
•Typically require a pre-conditioning period to heat up the
•Good for steady, low-thrust burns.
•Good when substantial spacecraft power is available for
short periods.

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Electric thrusters: Atlantic Research Co.

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Xenon ion thruster

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