Between this two LH2/LOX rocket engines the SSME(RS-25 different) of the Space Shuttle rocket and RD-0120 of the Energia rocket, which one has higher performance and better technology to launch space rockets in low earth orbit?

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Beyond fun and games, why? $\endgroup$
    – geoffc
    Jan 4, 2016 at 14:59
  • $\begingroup$ it is about which rocket engine has better technology for launching payload to low earth orbit $\endgroup$
    – Mark777
    Jan 4, 2016 at 15:02
  • $\begingroup$ I was trying to know if it is kind of formula to calculate the performance of engines by knowing elements such as the thrust in sea level and vacuum, specific impulse in sea level and vacuum, burning time, gross weight of the rocket and elements of other booster stages solids or liquids in each case of the rockets.Kind of formulas for calculation such as for total impulse or for payload momentum for example.So it makes sense now.Anyway i am editing and changing the question to be more easier to answer since conclusions could be given maybe only by projectors of the rocket, engines & blueprints $\endgroup$
    – Mark777
    Jan 4, 2016 at 16:16
  • $\begingroup$ Even sea level ISP of rd-0120 is lower, atmosphere is pretty thin, so first stage will benefit more of higher vacuum ISP of RD-0120 when used on real rocket. $\endgroup$
    – Umad Damu
    Aug 22, 2021 at 1:23

1 Answer 1


The two big performance considerations for a liquid fueled engine are thrust and specific impulse. On these criteria, the two engines are very comparable.

The SSME has a bit more thrust: 1860kN at sea level, increasing to 2279kN in vacuum, versus RD-0120's 1526kN to 1961kN -- a 22% difference at sea level and 16% in vacuum.

The other major factor is specific impulse, which is a measure of fuel efficiency. The SSME's specific impulse is 366 seconds at sea level, increasing to 452 seconds in vacuum; the RD-0120's goes from 353 seconds to 455 seconds. RD-0120 is spending 3% more fuel per unit of thrust during takeoff.

So, once out of atmosphere, the Russian engine is almost 1% more efficient; in all other cases, the SSME outperforms it.

If you swapped the engines between Energia and the shuttle -- keeping the number of engines the same, so 3 RD-0120 on the shuttle and 4 SSME on the Energia -- the re-engined Energia would be able to lift a little more payload, and the shuttle could only make it to orbit with a reduced payload -- about 15 tons instead of 25.

The shuttle would still be able to take off despite the reduction in thrust, because at liftoff the solid rocket boosters are doing most of the work. It would ascend a little more slowly at the start, which would cost a little more fuel due to gravity losses, but it turns out that the shuttle throttles its engines down substantially over the course of the ascent to reduce aerodynamic loads and peak g-forces, so the RD-0120s would have more than enough power during much of the ascent.

Its slight edge in performance doesn't necessarily make the SSME "better technology". It's one of the most complicated and expensive rocket engines ever flown. RD-0120 gives you more bang for the buck (or maybe "more rumble for the ruble").

Here's a method to roughly estimate the payload hit. Ignore the SRBs for the moment and consider a 68 ton orbiter, 25 ton payload, 30 ton external tank, and 730 tons of propellant: 853 tons total, 123 tons with propellant expended. Apply the rocket equation with the 366 second sea level SSME figure:

$$∆v = 366s \cdot 9.81m/s^2 \cdot \ln \frac{853}{123} = 6953 m/s$$

Now determine the change in payload mass (∆m) needed to get the same result from the RD-0120's specific impulse:

$$6953 m/s = 353s \cdot 9.81m/s^2 \cdot \ln \frac{853+∆m}{123+∆m}$$

$$ 7.447 = \frac{853+∆m}{123+∆m} $$

Rearranging and solving, we get:

$$ ∆m = -9.77 $$

So if the sea level specific impulse held throughout the flight, and the SRBs weren't involved, shaving 9.77 tons off the payload would produce the same ∆v. This is a worst case because we expect the specific impulse of the RD-0120 to "catch up" with and even exceed that of the SSME over the course of the flight, so the actual payload hit should be smaller -- but we'll also lose some ∆v to gravity during the slightly slower ascent, so 10 tons is a reasonable estimate.

You can run similar calculations on the Energia side to work out the additional payload mass it could lift if equipped with SSMEs, but I can't find clear numbers for its dry, wet, and payload masses; probably it's a fairly similar delta.

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    $\begingroup$ I had to vote you up just for "more rumble for the ruble." $\endgroup$ Jan 5, 2016 at 2:15
  • $\begingroup$ Great answer. Further to one of your points it says here en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RD-0120 "The RD-0120 achieved nearly identical specific impulse and combustion chamber pressure with reduced complexity and cost, as compared to the SSME, primarily at the expense of lower thrust-to-weight ratio." ......"Some of the Russian design features, such as the simpler and cheaper channel wall nozzles, were evaluated by Rocketdyne for possible upgrades to the SSME. It achieved combustion stability without the acoustic resonance chambers that the SSME required." $\endgroup$
    – Puffin
    Jan 5, 2016 at 11:31
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    $\begingroup$ Of course, the SSME was reusable, which might well explain your point "one of the most complicated and expensive rocket engines ever flown" $\endgroup$
    – Puffin
    Jan 5, 2016 at 11:34
  • $\begingroup$ Running the comparison at sealevel ISP is not realistic, as a launching rocket spends less than the first 2 minutes in significant atmosphere, the next 6.5 minutes are in vacuum or very very low pressure air. Applying the same calc as the answer in vacuum, gives the rd0120 a 2.3 tonne ADVANTAGE, even including the extra 0.6 tonne dry mass due to engine mass difference. Assuming the first 2 minutes is sealevel and rest vacuum, puts the balance at: 0.39% advantage to rs25, mostly because of increased dry mass going to orbit. (this does not account for increased gravity loss due to reduced TWR ) $\endgroup$ Aug 22, 2021 at 8:42

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