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Forces on a rocket in flight

The general study of the forces on a rocket is part of the field of ballistics. Spacecraft are further studied in the subfield of astrodynamics.

Flying rockets are primarily affected by the following:[54]

  • Thrust from the engine(s)
  • Gravity from celestial bodies
  • Drag if moving in atmosphere
  • Lift; usually relatively small effect except for rocket-powered aircraft

In addition, the inertia and centrifugal pseudo-force can be significant due to the path of the rocket around the center of a celestial body; when high enough speeds in the right direction and altitude are achieved a stable orbit or escape velocity is obtained.

These forces, with a stabilizing tail (the empennage) present will, unless deliberate control efforts are made, naturally cause the vehicle to follow a roughly parabolic trajectory termed a gravity turn, and this trajectory is often used at least during the initial part of a launch. (This is true even if the rocket engine is mounted at the nose.) Vehicles can thus maintain low or even zero angle of attack, which minimizes transverse stress on the launch vehicle, permitting a weaker, and hence lighter, launch vehicle.[55][56]

Drag

Drag is a force opposite to the direction of the rocket's motion relative to any air it is moving through. This slows the speed of the vehicle and produces structural loads. The deceleration forces for fast-moving rockets are calculated using the drag equation.

Drag can be minimised by an aerodynamic nose cone and by using a shape with a high ballistic coefficient (the "classic" rocket shapeā€”long and thin), and by keeping the rocket's angle of attack as low as possible.

During a launch, as the vehicle speed increases, and the atmosphere thins, there is a point of maximum aerodynamic drag called max Q. This determines the minimum aerodynamic strength of the vehicle, as the rocket must avoid buckling under these forces.[57]

Net thrust

A typical rocket engine can handle a significant fraction of its own mass in propellant each second, with the propellant leaving the nozzle at several kilometres per second. This means that the thrust-to-weight ratio of a rocket engine, and often the entire vehicle can be very high, in extreme cases over 100. This compares with other jet propulsion engines that can exceed 5 for some of the better[58] engines.[59]

The effective exhaust velocity {\displaystyle v{e}}v{e} is more or less the speed the exhaust leaves the vehicle, and in the vacuum of space, the effective exhaust velocity is often equal to the actual average exhaust speed along the thrust axis. However, the effective exhaust velocity allows for various losses, and notably, is reduced when operated within an atmosphere.

The rate of propellant flow through a rocket engine is often deliberately varied over a flight, to provide a way to control the thrust and thus the airspeed of the vehicle. This, for example, allows minimization of aerodynamic losses[57] and can limit the increase of g-forces due to the reduction in propellant load.