Cold gas thruster

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A cold gas thruster (or a cold gas propulsion system) is a type of rocket engine which uses the expansion of a (typically inert) pressurized gas to generate thrust. As opposed to traditional rocket engines, a cold gas thruster does not house any combustion and therefore has lower thrust and efficiency compared to conventional monopropellant and bipropellant rocket engines. Cold gas thrusters have been referred to as the "simplest manifestation of a rocket engine" because their design consists only of a fuel tank, a regulating valve, a propelling nozzle, and the little required plumbing. They are the cheapest, simplest, and most reliable propulsion systems available for orbital maintenance, maneuvering and attitude control.[citation needed]

Cold gas thrusters are predominantly used to provide stabilization for smaller space missions which require contaminant-free operation.[1] Specifically, CubeSat propulsion system development has been predominantly focused on cold gas systems because CubeSats have strict regulations against pyrotechnics and hazardous materials.[2]


Schematic of a cold gas propulsion system

The nozzle of a cold gas thruster is generally a convergent-divergent nozzle that provides the required thrust in flight. The nozzle is shaped such that the high-pressure, low-velocity gas that enters the nozzle is accelerated as it approaches the throat (the narrowest part of the nozzle), where the gas velocity matches the speed of sound.[citation needed]


Cold gas thrusters benefit from their simplicity; however, they do fall short in other respects. The following list summarizes the advantages and disadvantages of a cold gas system.


  • A lack of combustion in the nozzle of a cold gas thruster allows its usage in situations where regular liquid rocket engines would be too hot. This eliminates the need to engineer heat management systems.
  • The simple design allows the thrusters to be smaller than regular rocket engines, which makes them a suitable choice for missions with limited volume and weight requirements.
  • The cold gas system and its fuel are inexpensive compared to regular rocket engines.[citation needed]
  • The simple design is less prone to failures than a traditional rocket engine.[citation needed]
  • The fuels used in a cold gas system are safe to handle both before and after firing the engine. If inert fuel is used the cold gas system is one of the safest possible rocket engines.[1]
  • Cold gas thrusters do not build up a net charge on the spacecraft during operation.
  • Cold gas thrusters require very little electrical energy to operate, which is useful, for example, when a spacecraft is in the shadow of the planet it is orbiting.


  • A cold gas system cannot produce the high thrust that combustive rocket engines can achieve.
  • Cold gas thrusters are less mass efficient than traditional rocket engines.
  • The maximum thrust of a cold gas thruster is dependent upon the pressure in the storage tank. As fuel is used up with simple compressed-gas systems, the pressure decreases and maximum thrust decreases.[3] With liquefied gasses, pressure will remain relatively constant as the liquid gas volatilizes and is used up in a manner similar to aerosol cans.


Thrust is generated by momentum exchange between the exhaust and the spacecraft, which is given by Newton's second law as where is the mass flow rate, and is the velocity of the exhaust.

In the case of a cold gas thruster in space, where the thrusters are designed for infinite expansion (since the ambient pressure is zero), the thrust is given as

Where is the area of the throat, is the chamber pressure in the nozzle, is the specific heat ratio, is the exit pressure of the propellant, and is the exit area of the nozzle.[citation needed]

Specific Impulse[edit]

The specific impulse (Isp) of a rocket engine is the most important metric of efficiency; a high specific impulse is normally desired. Cold gas thrusters have a significantly lower specific impulse than most other rocket engines because they do not take advantage of chemical energy stored in the propellant. The theoretical specific impulse for cold gasses is given by

where is standard gravity and is the characteristic velocity which is given by

where is the sonic velocity of the propellant.[citation needed]


Cold gas systems can use either a solid, liquid or gaseous propellant storage system; but the propellant needs to exit the nozzle in gaseous form. Storing liquid propellant may pose attitude control issues due to the sloshing of fuel in its tank.

When deciding which propellant to use, a high specific impulse and a high specific impulse per unit volume of propellant must be considered.[3]

The following table provides an overview of the specific impulses of the different propellants that can be used in a cold gas propulsion system

Propellants and Efficiencies [1]
Cold Gas Molecular
weight M
H2 2.0 296 272 0.02
He 4.0 179 165 0.04
Ne 20.2 82 75 0.19
N2 28.0 80 73 0.28
O2 32.0 ?
Ar 40.0 57 52 0.44
Kr 83.8 39 37 1.08
Xe 131.3 31 28 2.74
CCl2F2 (Freon-12) 120.9 46 37 Liquid
CF4 88.0 55 45 0.96
CH4 16.0 114 105 0.19
NH3 17.0 105 96 Liquid
N2O 44.0 67 61 Liquid
CO2 44.0 67 61 Liquid

Properties at 25°C and 1 atm


Human Propulsion[edit]

Cold gas thrusters are especially well suited for astronaut propulsion units due to the inert and non-toxic nature of their propellants.

Hand-Held Maneuvering Unit[edit]

Main article: Hand-Held Maneuvering Unit

The Hand-Held Maneuvering Unit (HHMU) used on the Gemini 4 and 10 missions used pressurized oxygen to facilitate the astronauts' extravehicular activities.[4] Although the patent of the HHMU does not categorize the device as a cold gas thruster, the HHMU is described as a "propulsion unit utilizing the thrust developed by a pressurized gas escaping various nozzle means."[5]

Manned Maneuvering Unit[edit]

Twenty-four cold gas thrusters utilizing pressurized gaseous nitrogen were used on the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU). The thrusters provided full 6-degree-of-freedom control to the astronaut wearing the MMU. Each thruster provided 1.4 lbs (6.23 N) of thrust. The two propellant tanks onboard provided a total of 40 lbs (18kg) of gaseous nitrogen at 4500 psi, which provided sufficient propellant to generate a change in velocity of 110 to 135 ft/sec (33.53 to 41.15 m/s). At a nominal mass, the MMU had a translational acceleration of 0.3±0.05 ft/sec2 (9.1±1.5 cm/s2) and a rotational acceleration of 10.0±3.0 deg/sec2 (0.1745±0.052 rad/sec2)[6]

Vernier Engines[edit]

Main article: Vernier Engines

Larger cold gas thrusters are employed to help in the attitude control of the first stage of the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket as it returns to land.[7]


In a tweet in June 2018, Elon Musk proposed the use of air-based cold gas thrusters to improve car performance.[8]

In September 2018, Bosch successfully tested its proof-of-concept safety system for righting a slipping motorcycle using cold gas thrusters. The system senses a sideways wheel slip and uses a lateral cold gas thruster to keep the motorcycle from slipping further.[9]

Current Research[edit]

The main focus of current research is miniaturization of cold gas thrusters using microelectromechanical systems.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Nguyen, Hugo; Köhler, Johan; Stenmark, Lars (2002-01-01). "The merits of cold gas micropropulsion in state-of-the-art space missions". Iaf Abstracts: 785. Bibcode:2002iaf..confE.785N.
  2. ^ "Micropropulsion systems for cubesats". ResearchGate. Retrieved 2018-12-14.
  3. ^ a b Tummala, Akshay; Dutta, Atri; Tummala, Akshay Reddy; Dutta, Atri (9 December 2017). "An Overview of Cube-Satellite Propulsion Technologies and Trends". Aerospace. 4 (4): 58. doi:10.3390/aerospace4040058.
  4. ^ "Maneuvering Unit, Hand-Held, White, Gemini 4". National Air and Space Museum. 2016-03-20. Retrieved 2018-12-12.
  5. ^ US 3270986  Hand-Held Self-Maneuvering Unit
  6. ^ Lenda, J. A. "Manned maneuvering unit: User's guide." (1978).
  7. ^ plarson (2015-06-25). "The why and how of landing rockets". SpaceX. Retrieved 2018-12-16.
  8. ^ Elon Musk [@elonmusk] (June 9, 2018). "SpaceX option package for new Tesla Roadster will include ~10 small rocket thrusters arranged seamlessly around car. These rocket engines dramatically improve acceleration, top speed, braking & cornering. Maybe they will even allow a Tesla to fly …" (Tweet) – via Twitter.
  9. ^ "Greater safety on two wheels: Bosch innovations for the motorcycles of the future". Bosch Media Service. Retrieved 2018-12-14.
  10. ^ Kvell, U; Puusepp, M; Kaminski, F; Past, J-E; Palmer, K; Grönland, T-A; Noorma, M (2014). "Nanosatellite orbit control using MEMS cold gas thrusters". Proceedings of the Estonian Academy of Sciences. 63 (2S): 279. doi:10.3176/proc.2014.2s.09. ISSN 1736-6046.