To Non-Java ALLSTAR Network Website

                                                                                                                                                                        JAVA-capable browser required for graphic-based menus (Exploer 3.0 or Netscape 2.0 or greater)

Please let me remind all of you--this material is copyrighted.  Though partially funded by NASA, it is still a private site.  Therefore, before using our materials in any form, electronic or otherwise, you need to ask permission.
There are two ways to browse the site: (1) use the search button above to find specific materials using keywords; or,
(2) go to specific headings like history, principles or careers at specific levels above and click on the button.
Teachers may go directly to the Teachers' Guide from the For Teachers button above or site browse as in (1) and (2).

FAQnewred.gif (906 bytes)           

Introduction to Rocket Performance

rock_ln.gif (660 bytes)

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.

jump.gif (775148 bytes)

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.

back.gif (2208 bytes)

Send all comments to
1995-2018 ALLSTAR Network. All rights reserved worldwide.

Funded in part by

Updated: March 12, 2004