20 Jun Aerospace Engineering: Powering the Skies
By Athos Cespedes
Aerospace engineering is a captivating multidisciplinary field that involves designing, developing, and operating remarkable aircraft and spacecraft. At its core lies thermodynamics, a branch of physics that delves into the dynamic interplay of heat, work, and energy. Mastering thermodynamics is crucial to maximizing the performance and efficiency of propulsion systems, like jet and rocket engines.
The Brayton cycle is a vital concept for understanding how engines work. The cycle consists of four thermodynamic processes: compression, heating, expansion, and cooling. The cycle starts with air being compressed in a compressor. Then, the air is mixed with fuel in a mixing chamber. Finally, the air is ignited, which causes the air to expand and thus powering the engine.
The Brayton cycle is used in gas turbines and airplane jet engines. While it does not directly propel space rockets, it has inspired a new generation of propulsion systems. For instance, the SABRE engine, developed for use in the Skylon spaceplane, uses a closed Brayton cycle engine. It also includes a heat exchanger that increases efficiency by transferring thermal energy from the exhaust to the compressed air before it enters the combustion chamber.
It is exciting to look back and see how far we’ve come. NASA’s Saturn V remained the tallest and most powerful rocket for a long time, and the only one to help carry humans to the moon in the Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17 spacecraft. It used a Rocketdyne F1, a gas-generator cycle engine. Saturn V used 5 of these F1 engines, generating an enormous thrust of 6.77 MN. The F-1 still remains the most potent, single-combustion, liquid-propellant rocket engine ever developed.
In 2023, SpaceX’s Starship became the world’s largest rocket. It is designed to be fully reusable and uses the Raptor SpaceX, a methane-oxygen-staged combustion engine. The Starship uses 33 Raptor engines, each generating a thrust of 2.45 MN.
These achievements show that the field of aerospace engineering is dynamic and has the potential for even more amazing advancements in the future that awe us all!
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