Table of Contents:

  1. What Are The Selection Criteria Of Rocket Propulsion System?
  2. Mission Definition
  3. Affordability (Cost)
  4. System Performance
  5. Survivability (Safety)
  6. Reliability
  7. Controllability
  8. Maintainability
  9. Geometric Constraints
  10. Prior Related Experience
  11. Operability
  12. Producibility
  13. Schedule
  14. Environmental Acceptability
  15. Reusability
  16. Other Criteria

What Are The Selection Criteria Of Rocket Propulsion System?

Many criteria used in selecting a particular rocket propulsion system are peculiar to the particular mission or vehicle application. However, some of these selection factors apply to a number of applications which we are going to discuss in this article. Again, this list is incomplete and not all the criteria in this table apply to every application. Below explanation can be used as a checklist to see that none of the criteria listed here are omitted.


Here are some examples of important criteria in a few specific applications. For a spacecraft that contains optical instruments (e.g., telescope, horizon seeker, star tracker, or infrared radiation seeker), the exhaust plume must be free of possible contaminants that may deposit or condense on photovoltaic cells, radiators, optical windows, mirrors, or lenses and degrade their performance, and free of particulates that could scatter sunlight into the instrument aperture, which could cause erroneous signals. 

Conventional composite solid propellants and pulsing storable bipropellants are usually not satisfactory, but cold or heated clean gas jets (H2, Ar, N2, etc.) and monopropellant hydrazine reaction gases are usually acceptable. Another example is an emphasis on smokeless propellant exhaust plumes, so as to make visual detection of a smoke or vapor trail very difficult. This applies particularly to tactical missile applications. Only a few solid propellants and several liquid propellants would be truly smokeless and free of a vapor trail under all weather conditions.

Several selection criteria may be in conflict with each other. For example, some propellants with a very high specific impulse are more likely to experience combustion instabilities. In liquid propellant systems, where the oxidizer tank is pressurized by a solid propellant gas generator and where the fuel-rich hot gases are separated by a thin flexible diaphragm from the oxidizer liquid, there is a trade-off between a very compact system and the potential for a damaging system failure (fire, possible explosion, and malfunction of system) if the diaphragm leaks or tears. In electric propulsion, high specific impulse is usually accompanied by heavy power generating and conditioning equipment.

Actual selection will depend on the balancing of the various selection factors in accordance with their importance, benefits, or potential impact on the system, and on quantifying as many of these selection factors as possible through analysis, extrapolation of prior experience/data, cost estimates, weights, and/or separate tests. Design philosophies such as the Taguchi methodology and TQM (total quality management) can be inferred. Layouts, weight estimates, center-of-gravity analyses, vendor cost estimates, preliminary stress or thermal analysis, and other preliminary design efforts are usually necessary to put numerical values on some of the selection parameters. 

A comparative examination of the interfaces of alternate propulsion systems is also a part of the process. Some propulsion requirements are incompatible with each other and a compromise has to be made. For example, the monitoring of extra sensors can prevent the occurrence of certain types of failure and thus enhance the propulsion system reliability, yet the extra sensors and control components contribute to the system complexity and their possible failures will reduce the overall reliability. The selection process may also include feedback when the stated propulsion requirements cannot be met or do not make sense, and this can lead to a revision of the initial mission requirements or definition.

Once the cost, performance, and reliability drivers have been identified and quantified, the selection of the best propulsion system for a specified mission proceeds. The final propulsion requirement may come as a result of several iterations and will usually be documented, for example in a propulsion requirement specification. A substantial number of records is required (such as engine or motor acceptance documents, CAD (computer-aided design) images, parts lists, inspection records, laboratory test data, etc.). 

There are many specifications associated with design and manufacturing as well as with vendors, models, and so on. There must also be a disciplined procedure for approving and making design and manufacturing changes. This now becomes the starting point for the design and development of the propulsion system.

Typical Criteria Used In The Selection Of A Particular Rocket Propulsion System:

1. Mission Definition (Selection Criteria Of Rocket Propulsion System):

Purpose, function, and final objective of the mission of an overall system are well defined and their implications well understood. There is an expressed need for the mission, and the benefits are evident. The mission requirements are well defined. The payload, flight regime, vehicle, launch environment, and operating conditions are established. The risks, as perceived, appear acceptable. The project implementing the mission must have political, economic, and institutional support with assured funding. The propulsion system requirements, which are derived from mission definition, must be reasonable and must result in a viable propulsion system.

2. Affordability (Cost) (Selection Criteria Of Rocket Propulsion System):

Life cycle costs are low. They are the sum of R&D costs, production costs, facility costs, operating costs, and decommissioning costs, from inception to the retirement of the system. Benefits of achieving the mission should appear to justify costs. Investment in new facilities should be low. Few, if any, components should require expensive materials. For commercial applications, such as communications satellites, the return on investment must look attractive. No need to hire new, inexperienced personnel, who need to be trained and are more likely to make expensive errors.


3. System Performance (Selection Criteria Of Rocket Propulsion System):

The propulsion system is designed to optimize vehicle and system performance, using the most appropriate and proven technology. Inert mass is reduced to a practical minimum, using improved materials and better understanding of loads and stresses. Residual (unused) propellant is minimal. Propellants have the highest practical specific impulse without undue hazards, without excessive inert propulsion system mass, and with simple loading, storing, and handling. 

Thrust-time profiles and number of restarts must be selected to optimize the vehicle mission. Vehicles must operate with adequate performance for all the possible conditions (pulsing, throttling, temperature excursions, etc.). Vehicles should be storable over a specified lifetime. Will meet or exceed operational life. Performance parameters (e.g., chamber pressure, ignition time, or nozzle area ratio) should be near optimum for the selected mission. Vehicle should have adequate TVC. Plume characteristics are satisfactory.


4. Survivability (Safety) (Selection Criteria Of Rocket Propulsion System):

All hazards are well understood and known in detail. If failure occurs, the risk of personnel injury, damage to equipment, facilities, or the environment is minimal. Certain mishaps or failures will result in a change in the operating condition or the safe shutdown of the propulsion system. Applicable safety standards must be obeyed. Inadvertent energy input to the propulsion system (e.g., bullet impact, external fire) should not result in a detonation. 

The probability for any such drastic failures should be very low. Safety monitoring and inspections must have proven effective in identifying and preventing a significant share of possible incipient failures. Adequate safety factors must be included in the design. Spilled liquid propellants should cause no undue hazards. All systems and procedures must conform to the safety standards. Launch test range has accepted the system as being safe enough to launch.

5. Reliability (Selection Criteria Of Rocket Propulsion System):

Statistical analyses of test results indicate a satisfactory high-reliability level. Technical risks, manufacturing risks, and failure risks are very low, well understood, and the impact on the overall system is known. There are few complex components. Adequate storage and operating life of components (including propellants) have been demonstrated. Proven ability to check out major part of propulsion system prior to use or launch. If certain likely failures occur, the system must shut down safely. Redundancy of key components should be provided, where effective. High probability that all propulsion functions must be performed within the desired tolerances. Risk of combustion vibration or mechanical vibration should be minimal.

6. Controllability (Selection Criteria Of Rocket Propulsion System):

Thrust buildup and decay are within specified limits. Combustion process is stable. The time responses to control or command signals are within acceptable tolerances. Controls need to be foolproof and not inadvertently create a hazardous condition. Thrust vector control response must be satisfactory. Mixture ratio control must assure nearly simultaneous emptying of the fuel and oxidizer tanks. Thrust from and duration of afterburning should be negligible. Accurate thrust termination feature must allow selection of final velocity of flight. Changing to an alternate mission profile should be feasible. Liquid propellant sloshing and pipe oscillations need to be adequately controlled. In a zero-gravity environment, a propellant tank should be essentially fully emptied.

7. Maintainability (Selection Criteria Of Rocket Propulsion System):

Simple servicing, foolproof adjustments, easy parts replacement, and fast, reliable diagnosis of internal failures or problems. Minimal hazard to service personnel. There must be easy access to all components that need to be checked, inspected, or replaced. Trained maintenance personnel are available. Good access to items which need maintenance.

8. Geometric Constraints (Selection Criteria Of Rocket Propulsion System):

Propulsion system fits into vehicle, can meet available volume, specified length, or vehicle diameter. There is usually an advantage for the propulsion system that has the smallest volume or the highest average density. If the travel of the center of gravity has to be controlled, as is necessary in some missions, the propulsion system that can do so with minimum weight and complexity will be preferred.

9. Prior Related Experience (Selection Criteria Of Rocket Propulsion System):

There is a favorable history and valid, available, relevant data of similar propulsion systems supporting the practicality of the technologies, manufacturability, performance, and reliability. Experience and data validating computer simulation programs are available. Experienced, skilled personnel are available.

10. Operability (Selection Criteria Of Rocket Propulsion System):

Simple to operate. Validated operating manuals exist. Procedures for loading propellants, arming the power supply, launching, igniter checkout, and so on, must be simple. If applicable, a reliable automatic status monitoring and check-out system should be available. Crew training needs to be minimal. Should be able to ship the loaded vehicle on public roads or railroads without need for environmental permits and without the need for a decontamination unit and crew to accompany the shipment. Supply of spare parts must be assured. Should be able to operate under certain emergency and overload conditions.

11. Producibility (Selection Criteria Of Rocket Propulsion System):

Easy to manufacture, inspect, and assemble. All key manufacturing processes are well understood. All materials are well characterized, critical material properties are well known, and the system can be readily inspected. Proven vendors for key components have been qualified. Uses standard manufacturing machinery and relatively simple tooling. Hardware quality and propellant properties must be repeatable. Scrap should be minimal. Designs must make good use of standard materials, parts, common fasteners, and off-the-shelf components. There should be maximum use of existing manufacturing facilities and equipment. Excellent reproducibility, i.e., minimal operational variation between identical propulsion units. Validated specifications should be available for major manufacturing processes, inspection, parts fabrication, and assembly. 

12. Schedule (Selection Criteria Of Rocket Propulsion System):

The overall mission can be accomplished on a time schedule that allows the system benefits to be realized. R&D, qualification, flight testing, and/or initial operating capability are completed on a preplanned schedule. No unforeseen delays. Critical materials and qualified suppliers must be readily available.

13. Environmental Acceptability (Selection Criteria Of Rocket Propulsion System):

No unacceptable damage to personnel, equipment, or the surrounding countryside. No toxic species in the exhaust plume. No serious damage (e.g., corrosion) due to propellant spills or escaping vapors. Noise in communities close to a test or launch site should remain within tolerable levels. Minimal risk of exposure to cancer-causing chemicals. Hazards must be sufficiently low, so that issues on environmental impact statements are not contentious and approvals by environmental authorities become routine. There should be compliance with applicable laws and regulations. No unfavorable effects from currents generated by an electromagnetic pulse, static electricity, or electromagnetic radiation.

14. Reusability (Selection Criteria Of Rocket Propulsion System):

Some applications (e.g., Shuttle main engine, Shuttle solid rocket booster, or aircraft rocket assisted altitude boost) require a reusable rocket engine. The number of flights, serviceability, and the total cumulative firing time then become key requirements that will need to be demonstrated. Fatigue failure and cumulative thermal stress cycles can be critical in some of the system components. The critical components have been properly identified; methods, instruments, and equipment exist for careful check-out and inspection after a flight or test (e.g., certain leak tests, inspections for cracks, bearing clearances, etc.). Replacement and/or repair of unsatisfactory parts should be readily possible. Number of firings before disassembly should be large, and time interval between overhauls should be long.

15. Other Criteria (Selection Criteria Of Rocket Propulsion System):

Radio signal attenuation by exhaust plume to be low. A complete propulsion system, loaded with propellants and pressurizing fluids, can be storable for a required number of years without deterioration or subsequent performance decrease. Interface problems are minimal. Provisions for safe packaging and shipment are available. The system includes features that allow decommissioning (such as to deorbit a spent satellite) or disposal (such as the safe removal and disposal of over-age propellant from a refurbishable rocket motor).

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