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I read that the F-1 engine from the 1st stage of the Saturn V rocket is the most powerful engine ever created by mankind, delivering ~200 gigawatts of power.

Thus, I have got two questions:

  • Will future rockets propelled by nuclear energy be able to surpass this limit, reaching magnitudes of terawatt power or beyond?

  • What is the theoretical limit to a rocket/spaceship engine power, if any?

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As an appetizer: projectrho.com/public_html/rocket/engines.php –  Deer Hunter Jun 22 '13 at 6:53
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As a comment: F-1 was the most powerful liquid-fuel engine. Each one of two Shuttle's SRBs (solid rocket boosters) provided 80% more thrust than F-1. –  Deer Hunter Jun 22 '13 at 7:03
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A good answer must touch upon: scaling laws, thermal constraints at the nozzle, non-traditional (magnetic) nozzle designs, tradeoff between launching from the Earth/assembling in orbit, reliability tradeoffs (one engine out contingencies). –  Deer Hunter Jun 22 '13 at 7:11
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Why don't you use wikipedia for links? Here is article about F-1 en.wikipedia.org/wiki/F-1_(rocket_engine) and it is not the most powerful liquid-fuel engine, Soviet RD-170 is. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RD-170_(rocket_engine) –  Sigrlami Jun 22 '13 at 8:09
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@DeerHunter You made emphasis on single-chamber parameter. I will disagree with you, it's a constructional parameter, not physical. Since we are on Physics.SE we have initial conditions: liquid-propellant rocket and highest thrust. I don't see how OP specified constructional conditions, so statement "... is the most powerful engine ever created by mankind" is wrong. –  Sigrlami Jun 22 '13 at 9:39

2 Answers 2

Usually nuclear rockets have lower thrust than chemical rockets, in a nuclear rocket you are trying to get the heat from the reactor into the propellant, which means a lower temperature. In a chemical rocket you have all the heat in the propellant, and try to avoid getting it anywhere else. Nuclear rockets make up for this deficiency by using a very light propellant (H2) to increase the exhaust velocity in order to make them very efficient. However, this lowers the thrust.

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Oh yes, particularly if we ever resurrect Project Orion, which works by tossing nukes out the back of the spacecraft and setting them off. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Orion_(nuclear_propulsion) It does, of course, take a pretty good buffer plate to absorb the momentum impulse.

Using Tsar Bomba https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsar_Bomba as an upper limit to what might be employed, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orders_of_magnitude_(power) suggests something on the order of 34 yottawatts as a peak power.

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