Russians use wooden matches to ignite rocket engines

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The March 12th launch abort of a Soyuz rocket occurred because the Russians use the equivalent of a giant wooden match to ignite their Soyuz rocket engines.

Essentially, prior to launch engineers insert large wooden matches into each engine, and these are ignited using an electric spark prior to allowing fuel into the combustion chamber. When mission control sensors all matches are burning, they open the valves and fuel enters the chamber, igniting and incinerating the matches.

This setup is not as simple as a regular match, but it is surprisingly reliable and has worked for six decades on hundreds of rockets. Yet on March 12, during the first attempt to launch the new Russian satellite for Earth observation, one of the “matches” failed to fire after the ignition command was issued. It was enough of a problem for the launch control system, which detected the lack of signal from the failed igniter, to call off the propellant injection into combustion chambers. The launch was aborted just a moment before liftoff, and the fully fueled rocket remained safely on the pad.

To launch the next day, they simply replaced the matches and tried again, quite successfully.

The article makes me wonder how other rockets ignite their engines.


  • BSJ

    Oldie but a goodie.

  • Wayne


    Way cool!
    –I’m going to read the whole thing! Thanks.

    I was going to say some flippant, elitist, “1st-World,” remark about “commie-technology,” but “if it works, it works.”
    They obviously have their method down pat, so why change it? (“because we can, is not always a “good” answer.”)
    We often get wrapped-up in “super-duper, high-technology” stuff in America and then utterly fail to realize (and appreciate) how dependent we are on it all.
    –I challenge the average-person to start a fire with twigs & a shoestring or play vinyl-records with a sewing-needle & a paper-cone.
    Not to get all fatalistic, but our supply-chain is so tight & interdependent these days, if Walmart for example, can’t re-stock their shelves in 48 hours– people start freaking-out.

  • Edward

    Wayne wrote: “They obviously have their method down pat, so why change it? (“because we can, is not always a “good” answer.”)”

    In engineering, change is bad. “If it works, don’t fix it” is as important as “Keep It Simple Stupid.” However, economics can be a reason to make a change; if your competitor is beating you, you need to make yours better/faster/cheaper.

    With the failure of this ignition system, the Russians may decide that it does not work well enough. Or they may learn that there was a problem with the manufacture of the specific device, and the design is still good. They have been having some quality problems, lately, so this is a credible possibility; however, unlike their other quality problems over the past half decade or so, this *possible* quality control problem is one that did not result in the loss of the payload.

    Good find.

    Robert wrote: “The article makes me wonder how other rockets ignite their engines.”

    There are hypergolic engines, such as the Apollo Service Module had. The fuel and oxidizer ignite on contact. Easy, reliable, and as James Lovell reassured his wife in the movie “Apollo 13”: ‘just open the valves.’

    I’m sure you remember that the Space Shuttle used “fireworks” (sparks) to ignite the main engines:

    Solid rockets generally use a big flame that shoots out of the capped end:

    Circa 1980, I saw an “old” NASA film, funded by AC Spark Plugs, in which one of the prelaunch check items was, yes, “AC spark plugs.” Here is a two-year old posting on starting rocket engines:
    “The first method is exactly what The Boss calls for, an electrical spark. In most cases when lighting liquid propellants directly, the components on rocket engines used to make electrical sparks are not a whole lot different than higher-energy, more robust, and more reliable versions of the spark plugs that you’ve got in your automobile.”

    “The second method also uses electrical energy but in this case rather than making a spark, you use it to make heat.”
    — This sounds like the equivalent of a glow plug in a diesel engine.

    “The third method … hypergolic propellants. … This is a common means for starting kerosene (also called RP-1) engines. The massive F-1 engine used as part of the Saturn V vehicle was lit by a hypergolic ignition system for the main combustion chamber.”

    “The fourth and last method that I can think of … a laser. … Thus far, I know of no fielded rocket systems where this ignition method is used (although I’ve been told that the Russians have demonstrated it on a full-scale engine), but it offers some very interesting possibilities.”

  • wayne


    How do the SpaceX people ignite their Merlin(?) engines?

    So– on the Space Shuttle launches, that “spray” of what looks like sparks–are actually “sparks?”

    How did the Germans fire up the V rockets?

    Good video links!

  • wayne


    Ref the Soviets–
    How do they ignite their ICBM’s??

  • Dick Eagleson

    The F9 Merlins are lit with a hypergolic combination of TEA (tetraethylaluminum) and TEB (tetraethylborane). This combo spontaneously combusts with a bright green flame. If you’ve ever noticed a bright green flash from the base of the F9 on launch video, that’s what you’re seeing.

    As to the Russians using “matches,” my boyhood friends and I tried using fuse intended for firing black powder cannon on our Estes model rockets. We lit the lengths of fuse with matches. That didn’t prove very reliable, though, so we went with what Estes recommended which was a small loop of nichrome wire wrapped in a bit of Kleenex, the whole thing stuffed up the engine nozzle and initiated with an Eveready dry cell. Perhaps the Russians could try scaling that up if the “matches” are no longer getting the job done.

  • Wayne

    Thank you! (I understand the “hypergolic” thing.)

    HAR–I tried lighting an Estes rocket engine in the exact way you did. Luckily–didn’t work for me. (didn’t have any of the igniter wire handy & was going to play “Launch the Rocket” all by myself… w/o adult-supervision.)

    –I am embarrassed to admit, as a young child– I actually tried to smash the end of a shotgun-shell with a sledge-hammer, had it in a heavy vise outside. FORTUNATELY my Dad came home, saw me, & flipped out. Very next weekend– I was thoroughly Schooled in the Correct Use of Guns & Ammunition! (My shoulder hurt for a week after that, yow, >quite the kick out of a rifle & shotgun.)
    As well– my first introduction to “electricity” was when I stuck two butter knives into the wall-socket… & completed the circuit… knocked me down! (never did that again, and never do I ever, stick a fork in a toaster!)

    Never made any explosives with my Gilbert Chemistry set (wasn’t for lack of desire!) but did mix ammonia with chlorine one time–YOW!

    Explains a lot, in retrospect, eh!? HAR
    (Competing for the Darwin Award & I didn’t even know it.)

  • Edward


    Thanks for the information. I did not know how I was going to find out about the Merlin engine.

    Modern Estes igniters have a black substance that heats and boils or pops, flying onto the surface of the solid fuel to ignite it. This seems fairly reliable, which is desirable, since kids are likely to run up to a hangfire and look into the nozzle. Have something that has few failures *and* does not smolder if it fails to ignite the rocket.


    I don’t know about many specific engines, but in the early days, NASA explained the sparks.

    Yes, sparks. I don’t know of any other engine lit the same way, but then again, I got into satellites rather than rocket engines (but in retrospect probably should have). The variety of ways for lighting engines also explains why rocket scientists make a big deal out of engines that light multiple times. If the spark generator — or match — is destroyed during the first firing, another method needs to be used to ignite a multiple-use engine. (I don’t know what the Russians use for their upper stage engines.)

    Often times, upper stages (such as the Saturn V third stage, AKA Saturn IV) light more than once. The recent SpaceX webcast mentioned that there were three burns before the satellite was separated. Geostationary satellites may have Liquid Apogee Engines that light several times to eventually circularize the orbit at the apogee of the transfer orbit (SpaceX webcast may have mentioned Geostationary Transfer Orbit as the orbit they would be in when the spacecraft separated).

    Soviet ICBMs almost certainly used the “matches.” They found a method that worked, it was simple, and they didn’t need to change it for their different booster rockets.

    Here is what I found for the V2:
    “Small holes also permitted some alcohol to escape directly into the combustion chamber, forming a cooled boundary layer that further protected the wall of the chamber, especially at the throat where the chamber was narrowest. The boundary layer alcohol ignited in contact with the atmosphere, accounting for the long, diffuse exhaust plume.”

    (I kept in the part about the cooled boundary layer, not only because it is a tangential topic on how rocket scientists try to keep the engines from overheating, but because two weeks ago I told my father that modern engines use this method, and he told me that the V2s did, too. Here I am, virtually retired, and I *still* can’t tell my dad anything!)

    Anyway, rocket engines are a fascinating topic. It is hard to get over the fact that these things are strong enough to hold together under high temperature, high pressure, high power (the Saturn V’s F1 first stage engine burned fuel at the rate of 32 gigawatts — each) while generating huge forces, terrible vibrations (under these conditions, everything is a spring, including the rocket’s structure and the payload and its components, but they are designed so that they don’t vibrate apart), avoiding destructive internal shock waves and pogo ( ), all while operating only a few feet from the fuel tank.

    Yes, Virginia, it *is* rocket science.

    You have my permission to be impressed.

  • D K Rögnvald Williams

    I wonder if a match triggers the conventional explosive wrapped around the plutonium core of their nukes.

  • Matt

    The Soviets took over that “match” ignition method from German V-2 missile together with any other details (use of H202 to drive the turbines, thrust prestage, …) in order to implement it for the R7-missile (=baseline design of Soyuz launcher). See 12:00 min.

  • Wayne

    D K Rögnvald Williams– Good one! [Har!] (But seriously–I assume they stole our timing/multi-point detonation methodology from the Manhattan Project? Not that they didn’t have their own brilliant people, but just easier to steal from us & the UK.)

    Matt: Thank you! Great archival film! (The “pyrotechnic device is inserted into the engine…”) Tangent– Q: I had read somewhere the Germans had something like “120+ consecutive failures” when developing their V rockets? >We were lucky to have snatched Von Braun, his records, & intact missiles to test ourselves.

    Edward: Always impressed with “rocket-scientists!” (always)
    And more-n-more impressed with engines that can burn multiple times. I get that it’s all a “controlled explosion” type of thing.
    We really are, just crawling out of the Cradle with all this, aren’t we?!

    Q: How did Robert Goddard ignite his early liquid fuel rockets?
    Q: I understand the use of turbines to pump fuel/oxidizer–do they also pressurize the tanks themselves to minimize sloshing-around of the fuel & keep the turbines supplied without getting air-gaps in the supply??
    Q: Is the “star” configuration used inside solid-fuel rockets, primarily designed to force even burning & prevent explosion?


  • Matt

    This video shows also the installation of the external igniter (by mean of wooden cross) into V2 engine nozzle (see at 52:40 min).

  • Wayne

    Matt– great film, had not seen this one before!

  • Edward

    Thank you, Matt, for the V2 “match” information. I suspect that Von Braun used the same thing in his early American rockets — the Redstones — too, as they were similar to the V2. My understanding is that the Saturn I and Saturn IB were essentially some Redstones bunched together.

    Wayne asked:
    “Q: How did Robert Goddard ignite his early liquid fuel rockets?
    “Q: I understand the use of turbines to pump fuel/oxidizer–do they also pressurize the tanks themselves to minimize sloshing-around of the fuel & keep the turbines supplied without getting air-gaps in the supply??
    “Q: Is the “star” configuration used inside solid-fuel rockets, primarily designed to force even burning & prevent explosion?”

    I didn’t find anything about how Goddard lit his rockets. It seems that rocket scientists don’t often brag about their ignition methods. However, photos that I have seen of his launch frame show a rod that sticks up toward or into the rocket nozzle.

    Fuel tank design is another interesting topic. Often there are baffles placed into the tanks of satellites to reduce sloshing, but the baffles can also provide a place for the propellants to wet, due to surface tension, in order to be guided to the tank’s drain/feed-line/plumbing to the engine, helping to assure that there are no bubbles in the flow.

    Pressurization does not prevent sloshing, but it provides a positive push through the plumbing. In booster rockets, the pressurization also provides structural strength — sort of like a soda can is stronger before you pop the top and depressurize it. It is harder to stomp a pressurized soda can than a depressurized one, the sides crumple more easily on the depressurized one. The skin of a (huge) rocket is about as thick — or should I say thin — as the soda can’s sides. (Doesn’t that make rockets that much *more* impressive?) Thus, booster rockets do not take side forces very well (and one reason why using a net to catch one on landing may cause too much damage for it to be reusable), as they are only designed to withstand large “vertical” (axial) forces.

    Here is a page that may also help:

    The above page mentions bladder tanks, which separate the helium pressurant from the propellant. It is like having a balloon full of the propellant inside the tank, and as the propellant is expended, the balloon gets smaller. This also avoids helium bubbles in the feed line plumbing. This does not work well with baffling, so it is better on smaller tanks.

    You may appreciate this view into a Falcon second stage fuel tank: (2 minutes)

    Interestingly, there are a few shapes that assure that the fuel of a solid rocket burns at/near the same rate from ignition to burnout — or whatever the desired thrust profile may be. A star configuration helps to provide a “constant” surface area of the fuel from ignition onward. I have seen books with figures showing various methods of doing this, including multiple circular-cylindrical holes in the solid fuel. Check out the figures on page 6 of this presentation:

  • Wayne

    Edward wrote in part:
    [“Doesn’t that make rockets that much *more* impressive?”]

    –Absolutely! I am endlessly amazed! (I’m finally “Living in the Future.”)

    –Thank you greatly for digging up those reference’s & video! (and Matt as well) I always follow up with stuff like that, so your effort is not wasted!

    Always considered myself a “concept-guy” & really do enjoy this stuff, but the more-n-more I learn about the ‘pesky engineering details,’ the more impressed I am & realize how little I actually know, about the details. (and the devil, is always in the details.)

    Q: How do we launch ICBM’s from submarines, under water? I’m under the impression they use some sort of “steam-driven system” to get the missile out of the sub, through the water & into the air, at which time they light-up the rocket. >must be highly choreographed!
    The submarine apparently “hovers” during launch as well.
    Am I correct to assume they (ICBM’s) are all solid-fuel? I thought we had some liquid-fuel versions early on, but they were apparently a problem to keep fueled & ready to go 24/7/365??
    (My wife was involved -peripherally- in decommissioning some silo complexes in Nebraska, checking for soil contamination & other Geologist type stuff, but the missiles & hardware were long gone when they let her group in. Have some cool pictures in storage.)


  • D K Rögnvald Williams

    The Titan ICBM’s used liquid fuel, and I’m pretty sure the Jupiter missiles did as well. Yes, they were hard to maintain, and we lost some airmen to propellant spills.

  • Edward

    You are correct, US submarines use steam to push their (solid fueled) ICBMs above the surface, where it lights in mid air. It ends up “hovering” (actually, it is in free fall) as its engine lights. There is a cover (which is blown off at ignition) on the rocket nozzle that prevents sea water from entering the engine. (As I recall, the Soviet Union had a type that would float to the surface and would light while still in the water.) (Trident II launch, 1/2-minute)

    The submarine also stops to launch the missile, which requires a form of hovering, because submarines are a little like Zeppelins sailing through the water; submarines, however, create a buoyancy ever so slightly heavier than the seawater around them, and they use their planes (fore and aft) to “fly” through the water, keeping them at the correct depth. Otherwise they would have to spend a lot of time adjusting their buoyancy in order to stay at the correct depth. Thus, when the submarine stops to launch its missile, it is “hovering,” and the correct buoyancy becomes more important.

    The Titan II and Jupiter C missiles used hydrazine-based fuels. Hydrazine is deadly, but it is still used in satellites, because it will last a long time without evaporating away. That characteristic made it nice for rockets or missiles that might have to launch at a moment’s notice, as fueling can be a time consuming process. There were some other early versions that used cryogenic fuels or oxidizers (e.g. LOX). Most modern ICBMs are solid fuel.

  • Wayne



  • Wayne

    “How a Titan Nuclear Missile Launch Works”

    “This video was shot in March 2013 at the Titan Missile Museum outside of Tucson, Arizona. According to the museum’s website, the complex is “all that remains of the 54 Titan II missile sites that were on alert across the United States from 1963 to 1987.”
    “The Titan II was capable of launching from its underground silo in 58 seconds and could deliver a nine megaton thermonuclear warhead to its target more than 5,500 miles away in less than thirty minutes.”

  • Been there several times, including once where the archivist gave Diane and I a personal tour. Definitely worth visiting if you come to Tucson.

  • Wayne

    [Titan Missile Museum outside of Tucson, Arizona.]

    Way cool Mr. Z!

    Personally, I’d like to visit B-Reactor at the Hanford Reservation. (Yeah…”I’m the one.” Har)

    Hoping to take the Amtrak “Empire Builder” route from Milwaukee to Portland, one of these Summer’s.

    This is fairly well done:
    “The Great Northern Empire Builder Rail Route”

    >”7th grade National History Day Contest submission for 2012. It won regional honorary mention at regionals.”

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