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What is the fundamental difference between a construction of n engines vs one engine with n combustion chambers?

For example, Energia rocket used four boosters, each with a 4-chamber RD-170 engine, and four separate single-chamber RD-0120 engines for its core stage.

I guess one difference may be a pump - for designs that utilize one, instead of using compressed neutral gas for displacing the fuel, but in designs that don't use turbopumps I fail to see any difference...

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    $\begingroup$ Are there any examples of pressure-fed multiple chamber engines? $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Nov 30 '15 at 12:33
  • $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble: ...or are they considered multiple engines and not multiple chambers due to lack of a common pump? $\endgroup$ – SF. Nov 30 '15 at 13:26
  • $\begingroup$ The link says the RD-170 had 4 chambers sharing one pump, and it was done to increase combustion stability, which was failing in larger chambers. Maybe that is the underlying design driver in such cases. $\endgroup$ – kim holder Nov 30 '15 at 15:06
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    $\begingroup$ I don't know of any unidirectional clustered pressure-fed chambers, but in theory they could share control, valve, and thrust-vectoring hardware and maybe be thought of as a single engine if you squint just right. For RCS thrusters, a cluster of pressure-fed chambers pointing in different directions built as an integrated unit is common, but that's probably a "module"; I found an Apollo SM schematic that called out the RCS as 16 engines rather than 4 modules/clusters/pods/units. $\endgroup$ – Russell Borogove Nov 30 '15 at 17:17
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The only potential differences I can see in this would be in gimbal range and the ability to turn off certain engines. The falcon 9 uses 9 individual engines which allows it to turn off as many as it needs to in flight to either land, re-enter the atmosphere or in case one engine breaks. A multiple chamber single engine could do this with some modification however at the point where you are putting separate on the fuel lines it would essentially become individual engines. For gimballing purposes, using one pump system would only really work if all of the nozzles are connected and gimbal together. Again; if they were to gimbal separately the pump system would likely need modification which would essentially result in individual engines.

The only real advantage of using a single pump system is that it would ensure a stable fuel flow to each chamber. This is brought up in the RD-170 Wikipedia page "Several Soviet and Russian rocket engines use the approach of clustering small combustion chambers around a single turbine and pump. During the early 1950s, many Soviet engine designers, including Valentin P. Glushko, faced problems of combustion instability while designing bigger thrust chambers. At that time they solved the problem by using a cluster of smaller thrust chambers." (Wikipedia, 2017). Due to fuel flow requirements of large thrust chambers, fuel flow may happen unevenly between the separate chambers if not enough fuel/uneven amounts of fuel are pumped in. The use of a single pump ensures that all chambers receive an equal amount of fuel pressure.

Using a single large pump system over multiple chambers also likely helps keep the cost and complication down in the rd-170. This design however is not widely used today in currently planned and used launch systems. The only system currently using something like this to my knowledge (please correct me if I'm wrong) is the RD-180 used on the Atlas launch vehicle (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Rd180schematic.png).

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    $\begingroup$ How does using a single pump ensure a stable fuel flow? Do you have references to back up any of your assertions? $\endgroup$ – Organic Marble Aug 22 '17 at 23:22
  • $\begingroup$ @OrganicMarble During the early 1950s, many Soviet engine designers, including Valentin P. Glushko, faced problems of combustion instability while designing bigger thrust chambers. At that time they solved the problem by using a cluster of smaller thrust chambers (Wikipedia, 2017). en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RD-170 $\endgroup$ – user20529 Aug 23 '17 at 3:00
  • $\begingroup$ The Black Arrow first stage had a single engine with 8 nozzles that pivoted in 4 pairs to provide pitch yaw and roll. Sylon C2's SABRE 3 engines were designed as (in each nacelle) a pair of dual chamber engines, each nozzle gimballing separately but in unison $\endgroup$ – JCRM Aug 25 '17 at 9:18

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