Maximum Achievable Velocity Change

The rocket equation gives the ratio of the initial mass to the final mass given a velocity change and an exhaust velocity.

$$\frac{m_i}{m_f} = e^\frac{\Delta V}{V_e}$$

This seems to say that given enough fuel we could get an infinite velocity change! To see what the maximum possible velocity change could be we need to account for the structural fraction. The structural fraction multiplied by the mass of fuel gives the mass of the structure needed to support and contain the fuel. The rocket equation now is as follows

$$\frac{m_h + (1+f)m_p}{m_h + fm_p} = e^\frac{\Delta V}{V_e}$$

where m_p is the mass of propellant, f is the structural fraction, and m_h is the mass of all other hardware. If we let the mass of propellant go to infinity, and solve for the velocity change, we get:

$$ \frac{\Delta V}{V_e} = \log{\frac{1+f}{f}}$$

The following plot shows the ratio of velocity change to exhaust velocity for a range of structural fractions.

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About Michael Paluszek

Michael Paluszek is President of Princeton Satellite Systems. He graduated from MIT with a degree in electrical engineering in 1976 and followed that with an Engineer's degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics from MIT in 1979. He worked at MIT for a year as a research engineer then worked at Draper Laboratory for 6 years on GN&C for human space missions. He worked at GE Astro Space from 1986 to 1992 on a variety of satellite projects including GPS IIR, Inmarsat 3 and Mars Observer. In 1992 he founded Princeton Satellite Systems.

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