The study of rockets is an excellent way for students
to learn the basics of forces and
the response of an object to external forces.
All rockets use the
generated by a propulsion system to overcome the
of the rocket. For toy rockets, like
bottle rockets, and
model rockets, the
aerodynamic drag and lift
are important forces acting on the rocket.
For air-to-air and ground-to-air missiles, the aerodynamic
forces are also significant. For satellite
the aerodynamic forces are not as important because of the
flight trajectory to orbit. The rocket gets out of the atmosphere as
quickly as possible, then gains the velocity needed to remain in orbit.
On this slide we show the major events in the flight of
a two stage launch to orbit.
Throughout the flight, the weight of the rocket is constantly
changing because of the
of the propellants.
the thrust produced by the
is greater than the weight of the
rocket and the net force accelerates the rocket away from the pad.
Unlike model rockets, full scale launchers rely on
a sophisticated guidance system to balance and steer the
rocket during its flight. The thrust of the rocket is
gimbaled, or rotated, during
the flight to produce maneuvers.
Leaving the pad, the rocket begins a
powered vertical ascent.
The vehicle accelerates because of the high thrust and decreasing
weight and rather quickly moves out of the thick atmosphere near
the surface of the earth. Although the rocket is traveling
supersonically, the drag on the
vehicle is small because of the
shape of the rocket and the lower air
density at altitude.
As the rocket ascends, it also begins to
its flight path becomes more inclined to the vertical.
Several minutes into the ascent, most launchers
discard some of the weight of the rocket. This process
and often includes the ignition of a second engine, or upper stage,
of the launcher. The discarded first stage continues on a
back to earth. The first stage may be retrieved, as with the Space Shuttle
solid rocket engines, or it may be completely discarded, as was done
on the Apollo moon rockets. The lighter,
upper stage continues to accelerate under the power of its
engine and to pitch over to the horizontal.
At a carefully determined altitude and speed the upper stage
engine is cut off and the stage and
are in orbit. The exact speed needed to orbit the earth depends on
the altitude, according to a formula that was developed by Johannes Kepler
in the early 1600's:
V = sqrt ( g0 * Re^2 / (Re + h) )
where V is the velocity for a circular orbit, g0 is
the surface gravitational constant of the Earth (32.2 ft/sec^2),
Re is the mean Earth radius (3963 miles), and h is the
height of the orbit in miles. If the rocket was launched from the
Mars, the rocket would require a different orbital
velocity because of the different planetary radius and gravitational
For a 100 mile high orbit around the Earth, the orbital velocity
is 17,478 mph. Knowing the velocity and the radius of the circular orbit, we can also
calculate the time needed to complete an orbit. This time is called the
T^2 = (4 * pi^2 * (Re + h)^3) / (g0 * Re^2)
We have developed a simulation called
CircularOrbit that you can use to study the effects of
altitude, velocity, and orbital period on the orbit of a satellite around any
planet in the solar system.
Looking at these equations, we see that as the height above the planet increases,
the velocity needed to maintain an orbit decreases. A spacecraft flying at a lower orbit
must travel faster than a spacecraft flying at a higher orbit.
While they can not fly all the way to orbit, there are
two stage model rocket kits available.
You can study the flight characteristics of a two stage model rocket by
Notice that orbital flight is a combination of altitude and
horizontal velocity. The recent Space Ship 1 flight acquired the
necessary altitude to "go into space", but lacked the horizontal
velocity needed to "go into orbit".
Types of Rockets:
Full Scale Rockets:
Circular Orbit Calculator:
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