Nuclear thermal thrusters long ago bypassed the 50-year-old specific impulse (Isp) limitation of conventional thrusters, using nuclear powered heat exchangers in place of conventional combustion to heat a hydrogen propellant. These heat exchanger thrusters experimentally achieved an Isp of 825 seconds, but with a thrust-to-weight ratio (T/W) of less than ten they have thus far been too heavy to propel rockets into orbit.
This thesis proposes a new idea to achieve both high Isp and high T/W: The Microwave Thermal Thruster. This thruster covers the underside of a rocket aeroshell with a lightweight microwave absorbent heat exchange layer that may double as a re-entry heat shield. By illuminating the layer with microwaves directed from a ground-based phased array, an Isp of 700–900 seconds and T/W of 50–150 is possible using a hydrogen propellant. The single propellant simplifies vehicle design, and the high Isp increases payload fraction and structural margins. These factors combined could have a profound effect on the economics of building and reusing rockets.
A laboratory-scale microwave thermal heat exchanger is constructed using a single channel in a cylindrical microwave resonant cavity, and new type of coupled electromagnetic-conduction-convection model is developed to simulate it. The resonant cavity approach to small-scale testing reveals several drawbacks, including an unexpected oscillatory behavior. Stable operation of the laboratory-scale thruster is nevertheless successful, and the simulations are consistent with the experimental results.
In addition to proposing a new type of propulsion and demonstrating it, this thesis provides three other principal contributions: The first is a new perspective on the launch problem, placing it in a wider economic context. The second is a new type of ascent trajectory that significantly reduces the diameter, and hence cost, of the ground-based phased array. The third is an eclectic collection of data, techniques, and ideas that constitute a Microwave Thermal Rocket as it is presently conceived, in turn selecting and motivating the particular experimental and computational analyses undertaken.
A propulsion system is disclosed that uses microwaves originating from a ground-based or on-board source to provide energy for propulsion. The energy produces thrust by coupling into a propellant via a microwave absorbent heat exchanger, and by subsequent conversion of the propellant thermal.