The aerospike engine is a type of rocket engine that maintains its aerodynamic efficiency across a wide range of altitudes through the use of an aerospike nozzle. It is a member of the class of altitude compensating nozzle engines. A vehicle with an aerospike engine uses 25–30% less fuel at low altitudes, where most missions have the greatest need for thrust. Aerospike engines have been studied for a number of years and are the baseline engines for many single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) designs and were also a strong contender for the Space Shuttle main engine. However, no engine is in commercial production. The best large-scale aerospikes are still only in testing phases.
The terminology in the literature surrounding this subject is somewhat confused—the term aerospike was originally used for a truncated plug nozzle with a very rough conical taper and some gas injection, forming an "air spike" to help make up for the absence of the plug tail. However, frequently, a full-length plug nozzle is now called an aerospike.
The basic concept of any engine bell is to efficiently direct the flow of exhaust gases from the rocket engine into one direction. The exhaust, a high-temperature mix of gases, has an effectively random momentum distribution, and if it is allowed to escape in that form, only a small part of the flow will be moving in the correct direction to contribute to forward thrust.
The aerospike attempts to avoid the problems above. Instead of firing the exhaust out of a small hole in the middle of a bell, it is fired along the outside edge of a wedge-shaped protrusion, the "spike". The spike forms one side of a virtual bell, with the other side being formed by the outside air—thus the "aerospike".
The idea behind the aerospike design is that at low altitude the ambient pressure compresses the wake against the nozzle. The recirculation in the base zone of the wedge can then raise the pressure there to near ambient. Since the pressure on top of the engine is ambient, this means that base gives no overall thrust (but it also means that this part of the nozzle doesn't lose thrust by forming a partial vacuum, thus the base part of the nozzle can be ignored at low altitude).
As the spacecraft climbs to higher altitudes, the air pressure holding the exhaust against the spike decreases, but the pressure on top of the engine decreases at the same time, so this is not detrimental. Further, although the base pressure drops, the recirculation zone keeps the pressure on the base up to a fraction of 1 bar, a pressure that is not balanced by the near vacuum on top of the engine; this difference in pressure gives extra thrust at altitude, contributing to the altitude compensating effect. This produces an effect like that of a bell that grows larger as air pressure falls, providing altitude compensation.
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