Flight Stability

Stability of a vehicle is achieved when the vehicle does not rotate or oscillate in flight. Unstable flights are undesirable, because pitch or yaw oscillations increase drag (flying at an angle of attack most of the time) and cause problems with instruments and sensors (target seekers, horizon scanners, sun sensors, or radar). Instability often leads to tumbling (uncontrolled turning) of vehicles, which causes missing of orbit insertion, missing targets, or sloshing of liquid propellant in tanks.

Stability can be built in by proper design so that the flying vehicle will be inherently stable, or stability can be obtained by appropriate controls, such as the aerodynamic control surfaces on an airplane, a reaction control system, or hinged multiple rocket nozzles.

Flight stability exists when the overturning moments (e.g., those due to a wind gust, thrust misalignment, or wing misalignment) are smaller than the stabilizing moments induced by thrust vector controls or by aerodynamic control surfaces. When the destabilizing moments exceed the stabilizing moments about the center of gravity, the vehicle turns or tumbles. In unguided vehicles, such as low-altitude rocket projectiles, stability of flight in a rectilinear motion is achieved by giving a large stability margin to the vehicle by using tail fins and by locating the center of gravity ahead of the center of aerodynamic pressure. In a vehicle with an active stability control system, a nearly neutral inherent stability is desired, so that the applied control forces are small, thus requiring small control devices, small RCS thrusters, small actuating mechanisms, and structural mass. Neutral stability is achieved by locating aerodynamic surfaces and the mass distribution of the components within the vehicle in such a manner that the center of gravity is only slightly above the center of aerodynamic pressure. Because the aerodynamic moments change with Mach number, the center of pressure does not stay fixed during accelerating flight but shifts, usually along the vehicle axis. The center of gravity also changes its position as propellant is consumed and the vehicle mass decreases. Thus it is usually very difficult to achieve neutral missile stability at all altitudes, speeds, and flight conditions.

Stability considerations affect rocket propulsion system design in several ways. By careful nozzle design it is possible to minimize thrust misalignment and thus to minimize torques on the vehicle and the reaction control propellant consumption. It is possible to exercise control over the travel of the center of gravity by judicious design. In liquid propellant rockets, special design provisions, special tank shapes, and a careful selection of tank location in the vehicle afford this possibility. The designer generally has less freedom in controlling the travel of the center of gravity of solid propellant rockets. By using nozzles at the end of a blast tube, as shown in Fig. 14-6, it is possible to place the solid propellant mass close to the vehicle's center of gravity. Attitude control liquid propellant engines with multiple thrusters have been used satisfactorily to obtain control moments for turning vehicles in several ways, as described in Section 4.6 and in Chapter 6.

Unguided rocket projectiles and missiles are often given a roll or rotation by inclined aerodynamic fins or inclined multiple rocket exhaust gas nozzles to improve flight stability and accuracy. This is similar to the rotation given to bullets by spiral-grooved rifles. This spin stability is achieved by gyroscopic effects, where an inclination of the spin axis is resisted by torques. The centrifugal effects cause problems in emptying liquid propellant tanks and extra stresses on solid propellant grains. In some applications a low-speed roll is applied not for spin stability but to assure that any effects of thrust vector deviations or aerodynamic shape misalignments are minimized and canceled out.

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