Spacecraft Propulsion

(Last edited: Friday, 28 April 2023, 6:09 PM)

Short Definition:

Spacecraft Propulsion is a method utilised to accelerate a spacecraft and artificial satellites. Different methods exist for this purpose, with each method having its advantages and drawbacks. Most spacecrafts nowadays are propelled by what is called a rocket engine, which propels the space probe by heating the reaction mass and allowing it to eject out from the rear of the vehicle.

Detailed Definition:

A spacecraft propulsion system has the purpose of changing the velocity (acceleration) of a spacecraft and artificial satellites. It is utilised to both leave earth and for orbit insertion. 

To launch a spacecraft from earth, the propulsion method must overcome a higher gravitational pull to provide a positive net acceleration. The difficulty of achieving this change is directly proportional to the size of the vehicle, which is why spacecraft performance is generally discussed in amount of change in momentum per unit of propellant consumed, known as “specific impulse”. The higher the specific impulse, the better the efficiency. 

Once launched, satellites and spacecrafts may need to be moved between orbits, thus requiring propulsion. When a satellite has exhausted its ability to adjust its orbit, its useful life is over. The methods areas are divided into four groups: (1.) chemical propulsion (reaction and rocket engines), (2.) electric propulsion (ion, electrothermal and electromagnetic thrusters), (3.) advanced propulsion technologies and (4) supporting technologies. 


  • Spacecraft: From Latin spatium/ "room” + from Nentish creft/ "power, physical strength"
  • Propulsion: From Latin Pro (pro)/ “before” or “forward” + pellere (pulsion)/”to drive”

Sample sentence(s):

  • Light travels approximately thirty thousand times faster than any current spacecraft propulsion technology.
  • Nuclear pulse propulsion is a form of spacecraft propulsion that would use nuclear explosives to provide impulse to a spacecraft. 

Translations of Terms/Concepts into Partner Languages:

  • French: Propulsion spatiale
  • German: Antriebsmethoden für die Raumfahrt
  • Polish: napęd statku kosmicznego
  • Swedish: framdrivning av rymdfarkoster
  • Spanish: Propulsión espacial

Links to Videos/Articles:

Space Propulsion: a Survey Study About Current and Future Technologies. DOI: 10.5028/jatm.v10.829

» Dictionary of Space Concepts