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Destiny Webpath Express
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World Book Encyclopedia Online
What is a Rocket?
The word "rocket" can mean different things but most people think of a tall, thin, round vehicle. They think of a rocket that launches into space. These rockets have engines that turn the fuel into hot gas. The engine pushes the gas out its back. The gas makes the rocket move forward.
In space, an engine has nothing to push against. So how do rockets move there? Rockets work by a scientific rule called Newton's third law of motion. English scientist Sir Isaac Newton listed three Laws of Motion. He did this more than 300 years ago. His third law says that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The rocket pushes on its exhaust. The exhaust pushes the rocket, too. The rocket pushes the exhaust backward. The exhaust makes the rocket move forward.
This rule can be seen on Earth. Imagine a person standing on a skateboard. Imagine that person throwing a bowling ball. The ball will go forward. The person on the skateboard will move, too. The person will move backward. Because the person is heavier, the bowling ball will move farther.
How Does NASA Use Rockets?
Early NASA missions used rockets built by the military. Alan Shepard was the first American in space. He flew on the U.S. Army's Redstone rocket. John Glenn was the first American in orbit. He flew on an Atlas rocket. The first rockets NASA built to launch astronauts were the Saturn I, the Saturn IB and the Saturn V. These rockets were used for the Apollo missions which sent humans to the to moon.
NASA uses rockets to launch satellites. It also uses rockets to send probes to other worlds. These rockets include the Atlas V, the Delta II, the Pegasus and Taurus. NASA uses smaller "sounding rockets" for scientific research. These rockets go up and come back down. They do not fly into orbit.
How Does a Rocket Fly?
In flight, a rocket is subjected to four main forces; weight, thrust, and the aerodynamic forces, lift and drag.
The weight depends on the mass of all of the parts of the rocket. The weight force is always directed towards the center of the earth and acts through the center of gravity, the yellow dot on the figure. The thrust depends on the gas flow rate through the engine and the velocity and pressure at the exit of the nozzle. The thrust force normally acts along the longitudinal axis of the rocket and therefore acts through the center of gravity. The aerodynamic forces of lift and drag depends on the shape, size, and velocity of the rocket and on properties of the atmosphere. The aerodynamic forces act through the center of pressure, the black and yellow dot on the figure. Aerodynamic forces are very important for model rockets, but may not be as important for full scale rockets, depending on the mission of the rocket. Full scale boosters usually spend only a short amount of time in the atmosphere.
In flight the magnitude and sometimes the direction, of the four forces is constantly changing. The response of the rocket depends on the relative magnitude and direction of the forces, much like the motion of the rope in a "tug-of-war" contest. If we add up the forces, being careful to account for the direction, we obtain a net external force on the rocket. The resulting motion of the rocket is described by Newton's laws of motion.