# Rocket Principles. Rockets: A Teacher's Guide with Activities in Science, Mathematics, and Technology EG-108 February Outside Air Pressure

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1 Rocket Principles Outside ir Pressure Inside ir Pressure ir Moves Balloon Moves rocket in its simplest form is a chamber enclosing a gas under pressure. small opening at one end of the chamber allows the gas to escape, and in doing so provides a thrust that propels the rocket in the opposite direction. good example of this is a balloon. ir inside a balloon is compressed by the balloon s rubber walls. The air pushes back so that the inward and outward pressing forces balance. When the nozzle is released, air escapes through it and the balloon is propelled in the opposite direction. When we think of rockets, we rarely think of balloons. Instead, our attention is drawn to the giant vehicles that carry satellites into orbit and spacecraft to the Moon and planets. Nevertheless, there is a strong similarity between the two. The only significant difference is the way the pressurized gas is produced. With space rockets, the gas is produced by burning propellants that can be solid or liquid in form or a combination of the two. One of the interesting facts about the historical development of rockets is that while rockets and rocket-powered devices have been in use for more than two thousand years, it has been only in the last three hundred years that rocket experimenters have had a scientific basis for understanding how they work. The science of rocketry began with the publishing of a book in 1687 by the great English scientist Sir Isaac Newton. His book, entitled Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, described physical principles in nature. Today, Newton s work is usually just called the Principia. In the Principia, Newton stated three important scientific principles that govern the motion of all objects, whether on Earth or in space. Knowing these principles, now called Newton s Laws of Motion, rocketeers have been able to construct the modern giant rockets of the 20th century such as the Saturn 5 and the Space Shuttle. Here now, in simple form, are Newton s Laws of Motion. 1. Objects at rest will stay at rest and objects in motion will stay in motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. 13

3 Resultant Path (Orbit) Satellite's Forward Motion Pull of Planet's Gravity molecules in orbit or the firing of a rocket engine in the opposite direction, slows down the spacecraft, it will orbit the planet forever. Now that the three major terms of this first law have been explained, it is possible to restate this law. If an object, such as a rocket, is at rest, it takes an unbalanced force to make it move. If the object is already moving, it takes an unbalanced force, to stop it, change its direction from a straight line path, or alter its speed. Newton s Third Law The combination of a satellite's forward motion and the pull of gravity of the planet, bend the satellite's path into an orbit. in a straight line if the forces on it are in balance. This happens only when the spacecraft is very far from any large gravity source such as Earth or the other planets and their moons. If the spacecraft comes near a large body in space, the gravity of that body will unbalance the forces and curve the path of the spacecraft. This happens, in particular, when a satellite is sent by a rocket on a path that is tangent to the planned orbit about a planet. The unbalanced gravitational force causes the satellite's path to change to an arc. The arc is a combination of the satellite's fall inward toward the planet's center and its forward motion. When these two motions are just right, the shape of the satellite's path matches the shape of the body it is traveling around. Consequently, an orbit is produced. Since the gravitational force changes with height above a planet, each altitude has its own unique velocity that results in a circular orbit. Obviously, controlling velocity is extremely important for maintaining the circular orbit of the spacecraft. Unless another unbalanced force, such as friction with gas For the time being, we will skip the Second Law and go directly to the Third. This law states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. If you have ever stepped off a small boat that has not been properly tied to a pier, you will know exactly what this law means. rocket can liftoff from a launch pad only when it expels gas out of its engine. The rocket pushes on the gas, and the gas in turn pushes on the rocket. The whole process is very similar to riding a skateboard. Imagine that a skateboard and rider are in a state of rest (not moving). The rider jumps off the skateboard. In the Third Law, the jumping is called an action. The skateboard responds to that action by traveling some distance in the opposite direction. The skateboard s opposite motion is called a reaction. When the distance traveled by the rider and the skateboard are compared, it would appear that the skateboard has had a much greater reaction than the action of the rider. This is not the case. The reason the ction Reaction 15

4 skateboard has traveled farther is that it has less mass than the rider. This concept will be better explained in a discussion of the Second Law. With rockets, the action is the expelling of gas out of the engine. The reaction is the movement of the rocket in the opposite direction. To enable a rocket to lift off from the launch pad, the action, or thrust, from the engine must be greater than the weight of the rocket. While on the pad the weight of the rocket is balanced by the force of the ground pushing against it. Small amounts of thrust result in less force required by the ground to keep the rocket balanced. Only when the thrust is greater than the weight of the rocket does the force become unbalanced and the rocket lifts off. In space where unbalanced force is used to maintain the orbit, even tiny thrusts will cause a change in the unbalanced force and result in the rocket changing speed or direction. One of the most commonly asked questions about rockets is how they can work in space where there is no air for them to push against. The answer to this question comes from the Third Law. Imagine the skateboard again. On the ground, the only part air plays in the motions of the rider and the skateboard is to slow them down. Moving through the air causes friction, or as scientists call it, drag. The surrounding air impedes the action-reaction. s a result rockets actually work better in space than they do in air. s the exhaust gas leaves the rocket engine it must push away the surrounding air; this uses up some of the energy of the rocket. In space, the exhaust gases can escape freely. Newton s Second Law This law of motion is essentially a statement of a mathematical equation. The three parts of the equation are mass (m), acceleration (a), and force (f). Using letters to symbolize each part, the equation can be written as follows: f = ma The equation reads: force equals mass times acceleration. To explain this law, we will use an old style cannon as an example. When the cannon is fired, an explosion propels a cannon ball out the open end of the barrel. It flies a kilometer or two to its target. t the same time the M F cannon itself is pushed backward a meter or two. This is action and reaction at work (Third Law). The force acting on the cannon and the ball is the same. What happens to the cannon and the ball is determined by the Second Law. Look at the two equations below. f = m (cannon) a (cannon) f = m (ball ) a (ball ) The first equation refers to the cannon and the second to the cannon ball. In the first equation, the mass is the cannon itself and the acceleration is the movement of the cannon. In the second equation the mass is the cannon ball and the acceleration is its movement. Because the force (exploding gun powder) is the same for the two equations, the equations can be combined and rewritten below. m (cannon) a (cannon) = m (ball ) a (ball ) In order to keep the two sides of the equations equal, the accelerations vary with mass. In other words, the cannon has a large mass and a small acceleration. The cannon ball has a small mass and a large acceleration. pply this principle to a rocket. Replace the mass of the cannon ball with the mass of the gases being ejected out of the rocket engine. Replace the mass of the cannon with the mass of the rocket moving in the other direction. Force is the pressure created by the controlled explosion taking place inside the rocket's engines. That pressure accelerates the gas one way and the rocket the other. Some interesting things happen with rockets that do not happen with the cannon and ball in this example. With the cannon and cannon ball, the thrust lasts for just a moment. The thrust for the rocket continues as long as its engines are M 16

5 firing. Furthermore, the mass of the rocket changes during flight. Its mass is the sum of all its parts. Rocket parts include: engines, propellant tanks, payload, control system, and propellants. By far, the largest part of the rocket's mass is its propellants. But that amount constantly changes as the engines fire. That means that the rocket's mass gets smaller during flight. In order for the left side of our equation to remain in balance with the right side, acceleration of the rocket has to increase as its mass decreases. That is why a rocket starts off moving slowly and goes faster and faster as it climbs into space. Newton's Second Law of Motion is especially useful when designing efficient rockets. To enable a rocket to climb into low Earth orbit, it is necessary to achieve a speed, in excess of 28,000 km per hour. speed of over 40,250 km per hour, called escape velocity, enables a rocket to leave Earth and travel out into deep space. ttaining space flight speeds requires the rocket engine to achieve the greatest action force possible in the shortest time. In other words, the engine must burn a large mass of fuel and push the resulting gas out of the engine as rapidly as possible. Ways of doing this will be described in the next chapter. Newton s Second Law of Motion can be restated in the following way: the greater the mass of rocket fuel burned, and the faster the gas produced can escape the engine, the greater the thrust of the rocket. Putting Newton s Laws of Motion Together n unbalanced force must be exerted for a rocket to lift off from a launch pad or for a craft in space to change speed or direction (First Law). The amount of thrust (force) produced by a rocket engine will be determined by the rate at which the mass of the rocket fuel burns and the speed of the gas escaping the rocket (Second Law). The reaction, or motion, of the rocket is equal to and in the opposite direction of the action, or thrust, from the engine (Third Law). 17

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