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Introduction to Rocket Performance

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Newton's Third Law

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.

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A rocket can lift off 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 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 and drag of the rocket. In space, however, even tiny thrusts will cause the rocket to change 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.

As a result rockets actually work better in space than they do in air. As 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.

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Updated: March 12, 2004