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Air-augmented rockets (also known as rocket-ejector, ramrocket, ducted rocket, integral rocket/ramjets, or ejector ramjets) use the supersonic exhaust of some kind of rocket engine to further compress air collected by ram effect during flight to use as additional working mass, leading to greater effective thrust for any given amount of fuel than either the rocket or a ramjet alone.
It represents a hybrid class of rocket/ramjet engines, similar to a ramjet, but able to give useful thrust from zero speed, and is also able in some cases to operate outside the atmosphere, with fuel efficiency not worse than both a comparable ramjet or rocket at every point.
In a conventional chemical rocket engine the rocket carries with itself in flight both its fuel and its oxidizer. The chemical reaction between the fuel and the oxidizer produces reactant products which are nominally gasses at the pressures and temperatures in the rocket's combustion chamber. The reaction is also highly energetic (exothermic) releasing tremendous energy in the form of heat; that is imparted to the reactant products in the combustion chamber giving this mass enormous internal energy which, when expanded through a nozzle is capable of producing very high exhaust velocities. The exhaust is directed rearward through the nozzle, thereby producing a thrust forward.
In this conventional design, the fuel/oxidizer mixture is both the working mass and energy source that accelerates it. It is easy to demonstrate that the best performance is had if the working mass is as low as possible. Hydrogen, by itself, is the theoretical best rocket fuel. Mixing this with oxygen in order to burn it lowers the overall performance of the system by raising the mass of the exhaust, as well as greatly increasing the mass that has to be carried aloft – oxygen is much heavier than hydrogen.
One method of increasing the overall performance of the system is to collect either the fuel or the oxidizer during flight. Fuel is hard to come by in the atmosphere, but oxidizer in the form of gaseous oxygen makes up to 20% of the air and there are a number of designs that take advantage of this fact. These sorts of systems have been explored in the liquid air cycle engine (LACE).
Another idea is to collect the working mass. With an air-augmented rocket, an otherwise conventional rocket engine is mounted in the center of a long tube, open at the front. As the rocket moves through the atmosphere the air enters the front of the tube, where it is compressed via the ram effect. As it travels down the tube it is further compressed and mixed with the fuel-rich exhaust from the rocket engine, which heats the air much as a combustor would in a ramjet. In this way a fairly small rocket can be used to accelerate a much larger working mass than normal, leading to significantly higher thrust within the atmosphere.
The effectiveness of this simple method can be dramatic. Typical solid rockets have a specific impulse of about 260 seconds (2.5 kN·s/kg), but using the same fuel in an air-augmented design can improve this to over 500 seconds (4.9 kN·s/kg), a figure even the best hydrogen/oxygen engines can't match. This design can even be slightly more efficient than a ramjet as the exhaust from the rocket engine compresses the air more than a ramjet normally would; this raises the combustion efficiency as a longer, more efficient nozzle can be employed. Another advantage is that the rocket works even at zero forward speed, whereas a ramjet requires forward motion to feed air into the engine.
It might be envisaged that such an increase in performance would be widely deployed, but various issues frequently preclude this. The intakes of high-speed engines are difficult to design, and they can't simply be located anywhere on the airframe whilst getting reasonable performance – in general the entire airframe needs to be built around the intake design. Another problem is that the air eventually runs out, so the amount of additional thrust is limited by how fast the rocket climbs. Finally, the air ducting weighs about 5× to 10× more than an equivalent rocket that gives the same thrust. This slows the vehicle quite a bit towards the end of the burn.
The first serious attempt to make a production air-augmented rocket was the Soviet Gnom rocket design, implemented by Decree 708-336 of the Soviet Ministers of 2 July 1958. This was an ICBM whose performance was so improved that it weighed half that of conventional designs. This led to it being light enough, about 30 tonnes, that it could be mounted on the back of a large tank chassis and made fully transportable. Design and test work continued on the design throughout the early 1960s, but ended in 1965 when the chief designer died.
Many modern solid fueled 'ramjet' powered missiles, such as the MBDA Meteor, may in fact be air augmented rockets, and the distinction between a ramjet and an air augmented missile is rather blurred. Many solid fueled ramjet missiles seem to be solid fueled ramrockets in all but name.
- Liquid air cycle engine – collecting oxidizer instead of working mass