The module descriptors for our undergraduate courses can be found below:

  • Four year Aeronautical Engineering degree (H401)
  • Four year Aeronautical Engineering with a Year Abroad stream (H410)

Students on our H420 programme follow the same programme as the H401 spending fourth year in industry.

The descriptors for all programmes are the same (including H411).


Spacecraft Propulsion S5

Module aims

Through this module you will become familiar with the fundamental concepts and practical engineering theory related to propulsion systems for spacecraft.  Both chemical and electrical thruster technologies will be discussed.  This will include an overview of plasma physics relevant to electric propulsion devices.  Additionally, essential astrodynamics concepts including orbital transfers, plane change, low thrust manoeuvres will be reviewed.

Learning outcomes

On successfully completing this module, you should be able to:

1. select appropriate spacecraft propulsive systems, based on a broad knowledge of the types available and their working principles.
2. appreciate the design drivers and mission requirements for modern spacecraft propulsion systems
3. understand the fundamentals of charged particle motion in electromagnetic fields and basic plasma physics phenomena, including Lorentz force, plasma sheaths, Child-Langmuir law and Hall effect, calculate the performance of chemical and electric propulsion systems from experimentally observable parameters
4. determine the propellant requirements based on propulsion system performance and orbital manoeuvre requirements
5. calculate the power requirements of an electric propulsion system based on a thrust and specific impulse target
6. conceptually design and size a cold-gas, monopropellant or bi-propellant propulsion system based on high-level system requirements.
7. conceptually design and size an electric propulsion system based on high level system requirements.

Module syllabus

- Introduction to spacecraft propulsion.  Overview of missions and thruster types.  Review of fundamental concepts.Mission
  analysis and propellant budgets.
- Review of classical astrodynamics, orbital elements and orbital perturbations.  Hohmann transfers and plane change
  manoeuvres.  Low thrust orbital transfers.
- Monopropellant thrusters, bi-propellant thrusters and resistojets.
- Electromagnetic theory and plasma physics.
- Arcjet thrusters.  Hollow cathode neutralizers.  Physics in the plasma sheath.  Gridded Ion Engines.
- Hall Effect Thrusters.  VASIMR thruster.  ECR thrusters.  Electrospray thrusters.
- Overview of spacecraft propulsion research at Imperial.
- Exotic propulsion (electrodynamic tethers, laser propulsion, nuclear propulsion, etc.).

Teaching methods

The module will be delivered primarily through large-class lectures introducing the key concepts and methods, supported by a variety of delivery methods combining the traditional and the technological. The content is presented via a combination of slides, whiteboard and visualiser. Learning will be reinforced through tutorial question sheets.


This module presents opportunities for both formative and summative assessment.
You will be summatively assessed via a closed-book final examination.
You will be formatively assessed through progress tests and tutorial sessions.
You will have additional opportunities to self-assess your learning via tutorial problem sheets.

Assessment type Assessment description Weighting Pass mark
Examination 2-hour closed-book written examination in January 100% 50%

You will receive feedback on examinations in the form of an examination feedback report on the performance of the entire cohort.

You will receive feedback on your performance whilst undertaking tutorial exercises, during which you will also receive instruction on the correct solution to tutorial problems.

Further individual feedback will be available to you on request via this module’s online feedback forum, through staff office hours and discussions with tutors.

Module leaders

Dr Aaron Knoll