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In military aircraft or space exploration, the payload is the carrying capacity of an aircraft or space ship, including cargo, munitions, scientific instruments or experiments. External fuel, when optionally carried, is also considered part of the payload.

The fraction of payload to the total liftoff weight of the air or spacecraft is known as the "payload fraction". When the weight of the payload and fuel are considered together, it is known as the "useful load fraction". In spacecraft, "mass fraction" is normally used, which is the ratio of payload to everything else, including the rocket structure.[1]



There is a natural trade-off between the payload and the range of an aircraft. A payload range diagram (also known as the "elbow chart") illustrates the trade-off.

The top horizontal line represents the maximum payload. It is limited structurally by maximum zero-fuel weight (MZFW) of the aircraft. Maximum payload is the difference between the MZFW and the operating empty weight (OEW). Moving left-to-right along the line shows the constant maximum payload as the range increases. More fuel needs to be added for more range.

The vertical line represents the range at which the combined weight of the aircraft, maximum payload and needed fuel reaches the maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of the aircraft. If the range is increased beyond that point, payload has to be sacrificed for fuel.

The second kink in the curve represents the point at which the maximum fuel capacity is reached. Flying further than that point means that the payload has to be reduced further, for an even lesser increase in range. The absolute range is thus the range at which an aircraft can fly with maximum possible fuel without carrying any payload.

Space craft

For a rocket the payload can be a spacecraft launched with the rocket, or in the case of a ballistic missile, the warheads. Compare the throw-weight, which includes more than the warheads.



Examples of payload capacity:

Payload[2]: 16,900 lb (7.665711053 kg) 8 racks with 2 x 0.314 m3 and 2 x 0.414 m3

    • Envelope: each 1.146 m3 in front of 4 of these 8 racks
    • Cargo mass: Dry cargo: 1,500 - 5,500 kg
    • Water: 0 - 840 kg
    • Gas (Nitrogen, Oxygen, air, 2 gases/flight): 0 - 100 kg
    • ISS Refueling propellant: 0 - 860 kg (306 kg of fuel, 554 kg of oxidizer)
    • ISS re-boost and attitude control propellant: 0 - 4,700kg

Total cargo upload capacity: 7,667 kg

Payload constraints

Launch and transport system differ not only on the payload that can be carried but also in the stresses and other factors placed on the payload. The payload must not only be lifted to its target, it must also arrive safely, whether elsewhere on the surface of the Earth or a specific orbit. To ensure this the payload, such as a warhead or satellite, is designed to withstand certain amounts of various types of "punishment" on the way to its destination. The various constraints placed on the launch system can be roughly categorized into those that cause physical damage to the payload and those that can damage its electronic or chemical makeup.

Examples of physical damage include extreme accelerations over short time scales caused by atmospheric buffeting or oscillations, extreme accelerations over longer time scales caused by rocket thrust and gravity, and sudden changes in the magnitude or direction of the acceleration caused by how quick engines are throttled and shut down, etc. Damage to electrical or chemical/biological payloads can be sustained through things such as extreme temperatures (hot or cold), rapid changes in temperature, rapid pressure changes, contact with fast moving air air streams causing ionization, and radiation exposure from cosmic rays, the Van-Allen Belts, solar wind, etc.


  1. ^ Launius, Roger D. Jenkins, Dennis R. 2002. To Reach the High Frontier: A History of U.S. Launch Vehicles. Univ. Pr. of Kentucky. ISBN 9780813122458
  2. ^ European Space Agency

See also


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