Time-Domain Simulation of Liquid Rocket Combustion Instabilities

Jutta Pieringer
, Thomas Sattelmayer
Lehrstuhl für Thermodynamik
Technische Universität München
Garching, D

Felix Fassl
EADS Space Transportation
Ottobrunn, D

A new approach for the simulation of combustion instabilities in a liquid propellant rocket engine is presented. The
basic idea of the method is to solve the unsteady linearised governing equations in the time domain for the three-
dimensional combustor geometry. To include the influence of the unsteady heat release the classical time lag model
introduced by Crocco is used. As a result, the onset of unstable modes is obtained. These modes correspond closely
to those observed in unstable configurations of a full-scale test engine.

Corresponding Author: pieringer@td.mw.tum.de
Proceedings of the European Combustion Meeting 2005
High frequency combustion instabilities have been a
highly undesirable phenomenon in the development of
rocket engines since the beginning of the history of
space technology. Many scientists have done
considerable research work on that subject since. In the
early pioneering work published by Crocco [1][2], Zinn
[3] and Culick [4] strong simplifications were required
due to the then limited computer performance, before
the equations could be converted in a suitable form for
the efficient numerical solution on low power

Research on combustion instabilities has seen a
revival during the last decade as this problem became
also important in the field of gas turbines in the
framework of the introduction of lean premixed
combustion for emission reduction. Older approaches
originally applied to rocket engines have been converted
into codes for the stability analysis of gas turbine
combustors. Furthermore, taking advantage of the
improved performance of modern computers new field
methods have been developed, which solve either the
Wave-Equation or the Navier-Stokes-Equations
numerically. This paper presents the application of a
three-dimensional unsteady modelling approach based
on the solution of the Wave-Equation to a hypergolic
rocket motor. This approach was originally designed for
the stability analysis of an annular gas turbine

Combustion instabilities are caused by the
interaction of the chamber acoustics and the combustion
process. Additionally, in rocket engines nonlinearities of
the flame and the acoustic processes play an important
role. To assess the stability of a rocket engine all
relevant processes feeding energy into the oscillation
and all damping effects must be taken into account. As
damping effects the influence of the nozzle and the
acoustic absorbers and effects like the droplet drag must
be mentioned.

The model of a hypergolic rocket combustion
chamber presented in this paper assumes linear
acoustics, considers the flame via a linear flame transfer
function and includes a simplified model for the nozzle.
It will serve as the basis for a more complex model to be
developed in the future, taking acoustic losses and
nonlinear effects into account. The aims of this paper
are the presentation of the basic concept and the
validation of the code concerning the prediction of the
onset of high frequency combustion oscillations in
rocket engines. It will be demonstrated that the resulting
modes and frequencies correspond to those observed in

Governing Equations and Model Setup
Combustion instabilities are characterised by
fluctuations of the pressure p, the velocity u and the
density ρ. The employed modelling approach is based
on the direct solution of the linearised governing
equations for p’, u’ and ρ’ in the time domain for a
three-dimensional combustor geometry. Important
advantages of the method are that it does not depend on
the assumption of oscillation mode shapes and that both,
the modes and frequencies are direct results of the

The governing equations for the fluctuating
quantities p’, u’ and ρ’ can be derived from the
conservation equations of mass, momentum and energy
by linearisation. Assuming that the amplitude of the
pressure and velocity fluctuations are small compared to
the mean pressure and the velocity of sound,
respectively, the acoustics in the combustion chamber
can be described by the linearised conservation
equations. Their derivation can be found e.g. in [8].
Postulating that the propagation of pressure fluctuations
p’ is isentropic yields the linearised relation for
isentropic changes of state p’/ρ’=
a . If additionally one
requires the heat release of the flame to be treated as an
external heat source, the linearised governing equations
result in
( ) ' q 1 κ p κ κp' p' p
& − = ⋅ ∇ + ⋅ ∇ + ∇ ⋅ + ⋅∇ +

u' u u u' (1)
for mass conservation and
( ) ( ) ( ) p'
a ρ
∇ − = ∇ ⋅ + ⋅∇ + ∇ ⋅ +

u u u u' u' u
for the momentum balance. Equation (1) is derived from
the combination of mass and energy conservation and,
therefore, contains a source term accounting for the
influence of the unsteady heat release. Equations (1) and
(2) describe the propagation of an acoustic perturbation
in an inhomogeneous flow field. Neglecting spatial
gradients in the mean flow and the mean pressure field,
applying ⋅ ∇
a ρ to the momentum equation (2) and
subtracting the result from the substantial derivative
D/Dt of the continuity equation (1) results in the
convective wave equation
( )( )

∇ ⋅ ∇ −

∇ ∇ ⋅ ⋅ + |


∇ ⋅ +

ρ u u u

' q D
1 κ
& −
= . (3)
The wave equation (3) describes the propagation of
acoustic pressure perturbations p’ in a uniform and
homogenous flow field. The substantial derivative of the
heat release fluctuation q′ &
on the right hand side of
equation (3) indicates that changes of the heat release
can be caused by local heat release fluctuations as well
as by a moving heat release zone. In the case of the
rocket combustion chamber the assumption was made
that the heat release zone is fixed and thus the
substantial derivative can be replaced by the partial
derivative with respect to time. In order to solve
equation (3), a relation for the coupling between the
heat release fluctuation and the pressure fluctuation p’ is
needed. For the simulation of the heat release
fluctuations in the rocket combustor the classical model
introduced by Crocco [1], known as the “n-τ-model”, is
used, which has been widely used in different forms for
the modelling of the heat release in combustion
instability studies. In our case, the following form given
e.g. by Culick [4], providing the relation between the
fluctuation of the amount of liquid propellant converted
to gaseous propellant per unit volume and unit time
' m
& and the pressure fluctuation p’ is adopted:
( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) x τ, t p' x t, p'
n x t, ' m
− − ⋅ ⋅ =
& , (4)
p designates the mean chamber pressure,
m& the
mean flow of propellant converted from liquid to gas. n
is the so-called interaction index, which can be
interpreted as a measure of the sensitivity of the
vaporisation rate to the pressure fluctuations. The time
lag τ refers to the time a droplet needs from its injection
to its complete vaporisation. This treatment omits
differences of the behaviour of fuel and oxidizer. To
apply the Crocco-Model (4) together with equation (3)
we adopt the hypothesis that the time of chemical
reaction can be neglected in comparison to the time of
vaporisation in the case of main stage operation and
thus the combustion process takes place instantaneously
after vaporization. Then the heat release fluctuation ' q&
obtained by multiplication of the Crocco-model (4) with
the released reaction enthalpy of both propellants
∆H .
Thus, the sub-model for the heat release fluctuation ' q&

( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) x τ, t p' x t, p'
n x t, ' q
− − ⋅ ⋅ ⋅ ∆ =
H . (5)
If n
is introduced for the product
m& ⋅ ⋅ ∆ n H
heat release model (5) reduces to
( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) x τ, t p' x t, p' x t, ' q − − =
n & . (6)

The rocket combustion chamber was modelled as a
cylinder with the heat being released in a slice located
near the injectors. The model setup indicating the heat
release zone and the inlet and outlet boundaries is
illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Model Set-up
Almost all boundaries including the face plate with the
injectors and the absorber ring are treated as
acoustically hard walls. This implies that the normal
velocity must disappear ( 0 ' = ⋅ u n ) which is fulfilled for
the boundary condition
0 p' = ∇ ⋅ n . (7)
In the convergent part of the nozzle the acoustic
perturbations are influenced by the compressible and
accelerated flow field. Since these interactions cannot
be reproduced exactly by the simple wave equation (3)
the classical procedure of substituting the nozzle by a so
called nozzle admittance is employed, i.e. a boundary
condition defining a relation between the pressure
fluctuation p’ and the velocity fluctuation u’ normal to
the boundary at the nozzle entrance. This is equivalent
to setting a reflection factor for the nozzle. Usually,
nozzle admittances depend on both oscillation
frequency and oscillation mode [3].

In the present case the simpler nozzle boundary
condition introduced by Marble & Candel [5] is used,
which is independent of the frequency and the mode
shape. The underlying theory is restricted to compact
chocked nozzles. Since in the present case the length of
the nozzle lies within the same range as the wavelengths
of the oscillations, the application of this boundary
condition represents a considerable simplification of the
reality. As the result of the theoretical work of Marble
& Candel a relation for the nozzle admittance was
found, involving the ratio of specific heats κ, the Mach-
number Ma at the nozzle entrance, the mean density ρ
and the velocity of sound a :

a ρ
1 κ
Ma u'

⋅ = . (8)
To eliminate the velocity component u’, the
following relation developed by Pankiewitz [8] for
boundary conditions of the type Kp' u' n = ⋅

u K

− = ∇ ⋅ n (9)
can be applied. As the constant K is typically very
small, this boundary condition is similar to an
acoustically closed chamber end and, therefore, the
acoustic losses across the outlet boundary are not very

As the purpose of this paper is to show the general
applicability of the time domain approach for liquid
rockets, the use of the boundary condition (8) for
convenience is acceptable. However, assessing the
stability of the rocket combustor quantitatively in the
future will require a more sophisticated treatment of the
nozzle including the acoustic losses.

As initial condition a random distribution of pressure
fluctuations in the cylindrical geometry is generated.
The maximum amplitude of these random perturbations
was set to values between 1% and 5 % of the mean
pressure. This pressure distribution represents the fact
that the mean conditions in the engine are never
completely uniform and smooth. This procedure
provides an initial perturbation for the growth of
unstable modes.

For the estimation of the mean thermodynamic
quantities in the rocket engine the programs designed by
McBride and Gordon [6] were used. Due to lacking
information about the exact temperature distribution, the
combustor flow is modelled assuming a gas of
homogeneous composition and temperature. For the
simulations non-dimensional quantities were applied,
which were obtained after dividing the corresponding
values by characteristic parameters of the model. As
characteristic length L
the diameter of the combustion
chamber d
, as characteristic velocity u
the mean
velocity of sound in the combustor a and as
characteristic density ρ
the mean density ρ were used.
The other characteristic quantities can be derived from
these quantities in the following way: time t
frequency f
, impedance Y

, pressure p

and heat release rate ' q& =Y
. All results in this
paper are given in a dimensionless form, which will be
indicated by *.

To solve the set of equations described above the
finite element tool FEMLAB 2.3 has been used.
FEMLAB can solve arbitrary systems of partial
differential equations. The cylindrical geometry has
been discretised with an unstructured finite element
mesh consisting of 13241 tetrahedral cells and 2659
nodes. The unsteady simulation has been carried out on
a standard PC and takes a few hours.

Figure 2: Simulation Procedure
Figure 2 illustrates the simulation procedure: starting
from the discretised geometry of the rocket engine, a
random pressure distribution is applied to the nodes of
the grid. This initial condition is expected to trigger the
growth of unstable modes, which are obtained by the
solution of the inhomogeneous wave equation (3) in the
time domain. As results, the spatial distribution of the
pressure in the rocket combustor (“modes”) and their
temporal evolution are achieved.

Results and Discussion
Eigenmode Analysis. Although an analysis of the
acoustic systems alone delivering the purely acoustic
modes does not account for the dynamics of the flame,
which influences the thermo-acoustic modes in reality,
the frequencies of the observed modes with flame are
known to be close to the purely acoustic modes. For the
cylindrical geometry filled with gas of homogeneous
mean properties the acoustic eigenmodes can be either
estimated analytically or calculated by a finite-element
method. The first four eigenmodes of the rocket
combustion chamber calculated by the FEM-approach
are illustrated in Figure 3.

Figure 3: Eigenmodes of the rocket combustor
The abbreviation L1 designates the first longitudinal
mode, T1 the first tangential mode, L1T1 the mixed
mode consisting of the fist longitudinal and the first
tangential mode and T2 the second tangential mode.

As a result of the eigenmode analysis the
eigenmodes and the corresponding eigenfrequencies
were obtained. As the frequencies of the thermo-
acoustic modes were expected to be close to these
acoustic modes, the results of the eigenmode analysis
are the basis for the analysis of the results of the time
domain simulation including the flame. The acoustic
eigenfrequencies of the cylindrical model rocket
combustor and the corresponding modes are listed in
Table 1 below:

Mode Frequency f*
Longitudinal 0.5
Tangential 0.586
Mixed 1
Tangential/ 1
Longitudinal 0.77037
Tangential 0.97218
Longitudinal 1.0
Mixed 2
Tangential/ 1
Longitudinal 1.093
Mixed 1
Tangential/ 2
Longitudinal 1.15
Radial 1.219668
Tangential 1.3373
Table 1: Acoustic Eigenmodes and Frequencies

Flame Model Parameter Variation. The time
domain approach was tested for a wide range of the
parameters of the Crocco-model (6), the proportionality
constant n
and the time delay τ . Those two
parameters were varied in a range of 0.00 < n
and 0.5<τ*<1.5.

Figure 4: Frequency Spectrum for n=0.00 and
=0.035 (τ =1.2) from the time domain simulation
For n
=0, which corresponds to a flame insensitive
to pressure fluctuations, the simulation yields the
formation of regular modes with decaying amplitude
from the initially randomly distributed pressure
perturbations. Figure 4 shows the frequency spectrum
obtained by Fourier analysis of the time signal for
=0.0 and n
=0.035. The time signal was recorded
at an observation point located near the wall at the
upstream border of the heat release zone for both cases.
From these signals the frequencies of all eigenmodes
listed in Table 1 can be retrieved. The peak at approx.
f*=0.5 in the frequency spectrum corresponds to the
first longitudinal mode, the one at f*=0.6 to the first
tangential, and so on. Already for the very small value
of n
=0.035, the amplitudes of the first longitudinal
and the first tangential mode begin to grow during the
simulation. This indicates that the initial condition
provides enough initial perturbation for the growth of all
unstable modes in the considered frequency range.

Figure 5: Onset of first tangential mode T1
L1 T1
L1T1 T2
For realistic values of n
the growth of unstable
modes can be observed directly in the time signals.
Figure 5 illustrates a typical result, which in this case
was obtained for n
=10 and τ*=0.9 and an initial
pressure distribution with a maximum amplitude of
0.054 p*. The main frequency in this signal corresponds
to the first tangential mode. The analysis of the spatial
pressure distribution illustrated in Figure 6 for this case
confirms this observation, as the development of the
first tangential mode over one oscillation cycle is clearly

Figure 6: Oscillation Cycle of theT1 mode
Increasing n
yields faster growing unstable modes.
The time signals exhibit always several frequencies,
including the first longitudinal, the first tangential and
higher order modes like L2T1 and T2. Therefore, the
most unstable mode for each set of parameters, i.e. the
one with the fastest growing amplitude was determined.
For that purpose a Fourier-analysis of the pressure
signal at different points was performed. This study
resulted in the mode map presented in Figure 7, which
shows the most unstable mode for each set of

Figure 7: Map of the fastest growing modes
The prevalent mode in Figure 1 is the first tangential
mode. Interestingly, it is very dominant for 0.8<τ*<1.0.
In this range the largest oscillation amplitudes are
reached for a constant value of n
. Other modes seem
to be more difficult to excite. Particularly the production
of higher order modes requires large values of n
, i.e. a
strong coupling between heat release and pressure

Crocco-Model and Observed Modes. To explain
the appearing frequencies and mode shapes during the
time domain simulation the following consideration
involving the Rayleigh-criterion can be made. The
Rayleigh–criterion states that the oscillation may grow
if the integral over one oscillation period of the product
of heat the heat release fluctuation and the pressure
fluctuation takes a positive value:

0 dt ' q p' & (10)
Replacing ' q& in the Rayleigh-integral (10) by the
expression of the Crocco-Model (6) and integrating the
expression analytically using non-dimensional
quantities yields
* T
* πτ
sin * T



. (11)
The expression on the left hand side takes values
between 0 and T*. The maximum value T* is reached
for oscillation times T* and delay times τ* fulfilling the
condition τ*=k (T*/2) or τ*=k 1/(2f*) with k a positive
integer. Table 2 summarizes the frequencies f1* and f2*
obtained from this requirement for k=1 and k=2,
respectively, for delay times of 0.5 <τ*<1.4. Column 4
of Table 2 specifies the oscillation modes with an
oscillation frequency f* close to these frequencies,
assuming that these modes are the ones to be most
easily exited.

τ* f
* f
* Modes
0.5 1.0 3.0 T1L1, T2, L2
0.6 0.83 2.5 T1, T1L1, T2
0.7 0.71 2.17 L1, T1, T1L1
0.8 0.625 1.88 L1,T1,T1L1
0.9 0.55 1.66 L1,T1,T1L1
1.0 0.5 1.51 L1,T1
1.1 0.45 1.36 L1,T1,T3
1.2 0.41 1.25 L1,T1,L2T1
1.3 0.38 1.15 L1,T1,L2T1
1.4 0.35 1.07 L1,T1, T2, …
Table 2: Theoretically appearing modes
The modes T1 and L1 are most frequently listed
above. Table 2 reveals that driving potential exists
independently of the selection of the delay time τ*,
since at least one or even several potentially unstable
modes can be found. Additionally, the most unstable
modes determined in the simulation and represented in
Figure 7 are also found in Table 2, indicating that the
time domain simulation reproduces the theoretically
predicted modes.

Comparison with Experiments. In the previous
sections, the behaviour of the model was explained
using an analysis of the theoretical sub-model for the
flame. In order to evaluate the model’s potential to
describe the processes in a real engine, the appearing
modes in the simulation will be compared to those
observed during a bomb test. Bomb tests are used to
evaluate the stability margin of a rocket engine. An
explosive charge is ignited at a well chosen point in the
combustor during stable operation. The answer to the
perturbation produced by the explosive charge is
measured and analysed.

Figure 8: Frequency plot obtained from bomb test
and simulation
In Figure 8 the frequency spectrum obtained by a
bomb test (blue line) is shown. The explosive charge
was located near the chamber walls and the pressure
transducer was flush-mounted at the orifice of one of
the quarter-wave tubes of the absorber ring.

This data is compared to a simulation result (dashed
red line) for n
=5.6 and τ*=0.8. In the experimental
data, the peak around f*=0.5 is known to correspond to
the first tangential mode T1, whereas the frequency
corresponding to this mode is located around f*=0.6 in
the simulations. In both cases this is the dominant
oscillation mode. The frequency shift between
experiment and simulation can be explained with the
simplified homogenous temperature distribution used
during the calculations, which neglects e.g. cooler
regions near the chamber walls. Furthermore, the
simplified geometry used in the simulation is a second
reason for slightly different frequencies in experiment
and calculation.

In the experiments the wide peak around f*=1.1 is
produced by the second tangential mode T2 and the first
radial mode R1. In the simulation, this peak is not
present, because the time domain model is very efficient
in exciting the first tangential mode, which then
dominates over the higher order modes. Higher order
modes are more difficult to generate and do not reach
the required amplitudes for an insufficient coupling
between heat release and pressure fluctuations.

Conclusions and Outlook
It has been shown that the time domain model is capable
of predicting the onset and development of several
unstable modes in a rocket combustion chamber. The
behaviour of the model can be explained by the
application of basic analysis techniques of thermo-
acoustics. Although several simplifications have been
made in the simulation, the appearing mode shapes and
frequencies are close to those observed in the real rocket
engine during bomb tests. In conclusion, the model
presented in the paper is a promising basis for improved
and extended models including acoustic loss
mechanisms and being able to predict high frequency

This project is funded by EADS ST and the Bayerische
Forschungsstiftung (BFS) in the framework of
Strömungsinduzierter Lärm “Stream Noise”. We would
like to thank the members of the Propulsion Dynamics
Team of EADS ST in Ottobrunn for the valuable


[1] L. Crocco, S. Cheng, Theory of Combustion
Instability in Liquid Propellant Rocket Motors,
AGARD Monograph No. 8 (1956)
[2] L. Crocco, Research on Combustion Instabilities
in Liquid Propellant Rockets, Tenth Symposium
(International) on Combustion, The Combustion
Institute (1965) 1101-1128
[3] W.A.Bell, B.T. Zinn, The Prediction of Three-
Dimensional Liquid-Propellant Nozzle
Admittances, NASA CR 121129
[4] F.E.C. Culick, Combustion Instabilities in Liquid-
Fueled Propulsion Systems-An Overview,
AGARD-CP-450 (1988) 1-11 – 1-73
[5] F.E. Marble, S.M. Candel, Acoustic Disturbance
from Gas Non-Uniformities Convected through a
Nozzle, Journal of Sound and Vibration 55(2)
(1977) 225-243
[6] S. Gordon, B. J. McBride, Computer Program for
Calculation of Complex Chemical Equilibrium
Compositions and Applications, NASA Reference
Publication 1311 (1994)
[7] C. Pankiewitz, Hybrides Berechnungsverfahren
für thermoakustische Instabilitäten von
Mehrbrennersystemen, Dissertation TU München
[8] C. Pankiewitz, T. Sattelmayer, Time Domain
Simulations of Combustion Instabilities in
Annular Combustors, Journal of Engineering of
Gas Turbines and Power 125 (2003) 677-685
[9] D.T. Harrje, F.H. Reardon, Liquid Propellant
Combustion Instability, NASA SP-194 (1972)

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