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10 Most Recent Questions and Answers (out of 15)
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MLA Citation: Bloomfield, Louis A. "Rockets Home Page" How Everything Works 11 Dec 2017. 11 Dec 2017 <http://www.howeverythingworks.org/prints.php?topic=rockets&page=0>.
1530. Does space dust settle on orbiting space shuttles? A, Troy, MT
What a great question! I love it. The answer is no, but there's much more to the story.

I'll begin to looking at how dust settles in calm air near the ground. That dust experiences its weight due to gravity, so it tends to descend. Each particle would fall like a rock except that it's so tiny that it experiences overwhelming air resistance. Instead of falling, it descends at an incredibly slow terminal velocity, typically only millimeters per second. It eventually lands on whatever is beneath it, so a room's floor gradually accumulates dust. But dust also accumulates on vertical walls and even on ceilings. That dust is held in place not by its weight but by electrostatic or chemical forces. When you go into an abandoned attic, most of the dust is on the floor, but there's a little on the walls and on the ceiling.

OK, now to the space shuttle. The shuttle is orbiting the earth, which means that although it has weight and is falling freely, it never actually reaches the earth because it's heading sideways so fast. Without gravity, its inertia would carry it horizontally out into space along a straight line path. Gravity, however, bends that straight line path into an elliptical arc that loops around the earth as an orbit.

So far no real surprises: dust near ground level settles in calm air and the shuttle orbits the earth. The surprise is that particles of space dust particles also orbit the earth! The shuttle orbits above the atmosphere, where there is virtual no air. Without air to produce air resistance, the dust particles also fall freely. Those with little horizontal speed simply drop into the atmosphere and are lost. But many dust particles have tremendous horizontal speeds and orbit the earth like tiny space shuttles or satellites.

Whether they are dropping toward atmosphere or orbiting the earth, these space dust particles are typically traveling at velocities that are quite different in speed or direction from the velocity of the space shuttle. The relative speed between a dust particle and the shuttle can easily exceed 10,000 mph. When such a fast-moving dust particle hits the space shuttle, it doesn't "settle." Rather, it collides violently with the shuttle's surface. These dust-shuttle collisions erode the surfaces of the shuttle and necessitate occasional repairs or replacements of damaged windows and sensors. Astronauts on spacewalks also experience these fast collisions with space dust and rely on their suits to handle all the impacts.

Without any air to slow the relative speeds and cushion the impacts, its rare that a particle of space dust lands gracefully on the shuttle's surface. In any case, gravity won't hold a dust particle in place on the shuttle because both the shuttle and dust are falling freely and gravity doesn't press one against the other. But electrostatic and chemical attractions can hold some dust particles in place once they do land. So the shuttle probably does accumulate a very small amount of accumulated space dust during its travels.


1159. If you were out in space and could see every individual person clearly, would it look like they were walking at a slant? — KD, McMinnville, OR
To the astronauts orbiting the earth, up and down have very little meaning. Because they are falling all the time, these astronauts have no feeling of weight and can't tell up from down without looking. If an astronaut were to look at a person walking on the ground below, that person might easily appear at a strange angle, depending on the astronaut's orientation and point of view.

1118. How might an ion engine work? — DAA, San Diego, CA
One possible ion engine uses mercury as a propellant. The mercury starts as a liquid in a small tank, but its atoms slowly evaporate to form a low-density gas. An electric discharge through this gas, such as occurs inside a fluorescent lamp, knocks electrons off some of the mercury atoms. When a mercury atom loses an electron, it becomes a positively charged mercury ion and can be accelerated from the discharge by electric fields. In the ion propulsion engine, an electric field extracts and accelerates the mercury ions toward a hole in the side of a spaceship. The mercury ions are ejected into space at enormous speeds. As they accelerate, the mercury ions exert reaction forces on the engine and these forces are what propel the spaceship forward. Overall, the mercury ions accelerate in one direction while the spaceship accelerates in the other direction. To keep the spaceship electrically neutral, the engine also ejects electrons into space. However, mercury ions provide most of the engine's thrust.

1089. If you have four carts of equal weights, one with small wheels, one with large wheels, one with small wheels in front and large wheels in back, and one with large wheels in front and small wheels in back, which cart will be easiest to move? — PK
The cart with the small wheels will be easiest to move. That's because, as the cart starts moving, each kilogram of mass in the wheels acquires twice as much energy as each kilogram of mass in the cart itself. Keeping the mass of the wheels low by making the wheels small reduces the energy in the overall cart and makes it easier to start or stop.

1039. Can a rocket, starting back toward the earth from 30,000 feet, reach the speed of sound before reaching the earth? — WJT, Crystal, MN
Some rockets probably reach the speed of sound in a few hundred feet heading upward, so that reaching the speed of sound in 30,000 feet heading downward would be a simple task. In fact, if you dropped a highly aerodynamic object such as a rocket from 30,000 feet, it could reach the speed of sound even without any propulsion! Gravity alone will accelerate it to about 130% of the speed of sound.

990. Why does the tower of Pisa lean? — CM, Edison, NJ
The tower was built long ago on unstable ground that was unsuitable for supporting such a tall and heavy masonry structure. For an object to remain upright indefinitely, its center of gravity must lie above its base of support and that base of support must be firm at all its edges. The tower's base of support had at least one edge that wasn't firm and that began to sink downward under the weight of the tower. Once this edge sunk a small distance, the tower's center of gravity shifted sideways so that it was above that weak portion of the base of support. This shift in the tower's center of gravity put even more stress on the weak part of the ground and caused additional sinking, additional tipping, and even more shifting of the tower's center of gravity. This process might have toppled the tower over by now were it not for recent efforts to stop the tipping. The base of the tower has been reinforced to prevent further tipping.

965. Is there any gravitational force between two atoms? — AW, Karachi, Pakistan
Yes, everything in the universe exerts gravitational forces on everything else in the universe. However, those forces are usually so small that they are undetectable. The gravitational forces between two bowling balls are only barely measurable in a laboratory. The gravitational forces between two atoms are so small as to be hopelessly undetectable.

938. How do rockets work?
Rockets push stored materials in one direction and experience a thrust force in the opposite direction. They make use of the observation that whenever one object pushes on a second object, the second object exerts an equal but oppositely directed force back on the first object. This statement is the famous "action-reaction" concept that is generally known as Newton's third law. While it seems sensible that when you push on a wall it pushes back on you, this situation is extraordinarily general. For example, if you push a passing car forward, that car will still push backward on you with an equal but oppositely directed force. If you push on your neighbor, your neighbor will push back on you with an equal but oppositely directed force even if your neighbor is asleep! In the case of a rocket, the rocket pushes burning fuel downward and the burning fuel pushes upward on the rocket with an equal but oppositely direct force. If the rocket pushes its fuel downward hard enough, the fuel will push up on the rocket hard enough to overcome the rocket's weight and accelerate it upward into the sky and beyond.

883. Would it be possible for a spacecraft to use electrically powered propulsion? Could it gather atoms and molecules from space and then use an electromagnetic field to push them through a nozzle? — JC, Burnaby, British Columbia
Not only is it possible to use electrically powered propulsion, such systems are already in use on several spacecraft. While they don't scavenge atoms and molecules from space, these ion propulsion engines uses electric forces to accelerate ionized atoms to enormous speeds. As the engine pushes on the ions it accelerates, those ions push back on the engine. The ions rush out into space in one direction and the engine experiences a modest thrust in the opposite direction. While the overall thrust from an ion engine is small, it uses its stored-atom "fuel" very efficiently and can be sustained for a very long time in a solar- or nuclear-powered satellite. Ion engines are used in spacecraft that need small but steady thrust for a long time. Scavenging atoms from space would allow these engines to run for an even longer time, but it's probably not realistic. The atoms in space are typically so rare and so fast-moving that they would be more trouble than they're worth.

679. What is the most explosive and energy releasing combination of chemicals? — RC, Chapman, Australia
A mixture of 1 part hydrogen and 19 parts fluorine by weight is the most energetic possible mixture of chemicals, releasing approximately 13,600 joules of energy per gram. The next most potent mixture is 8 parts oxygen and 1 part hydrogen by weight, releasing approximately 13,400 joules of energy per gram. Because fluorine is such a vigorous oxidizer that tends to cause fires, it isn't practical for rocket propulsion. The hydrogen/oxygen mixture is the basis for the Single Stage to Orbit rockets that are currently being developed. — Thanks to Gary V. Lorenz at NASA for help on this question.

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