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Rockets, Racecars, and the Physics of Going Fast

Rockets, Racecars, and the Physics of Going Fast

Rockets, Racecars, and the Physics of Going Fast

The SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft launch off Launch Pad 39B at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on November 16, 2022, beginning the Artemis I mission. The ignition from the rocket’s two boosters and four engines lights up the night sky. Smoke is seen building up from the ground as the rocket takes flight. Image credit:  NASA/Joel KowskyALT

When our Space Launch System (SLS) rocket launches the Artemis missions to the Moon, it can have a top speed of more than six miles per second. Rockets and racecars are designed with speed in mind to accomplish their missions—but there’s more to speed than just engines and fuel. Learn more about the physics of going fast:

The SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft launch from the launch pad at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center on November 16, 2022, beginning the Artemis I mission. This is a close-up view of the solid rocket boosters and RS-25 engines ignited for flight. Image credit:  NASA/Joel KowskyALT

Take a look under the hood, so to speak, of our SLS mega Moon rocket and you’ll find that each of its four RS-25 engines have high-pressure turbopumps that generate a combined 94,400 horsepower per engine. All that horsepower creates more than 2 million pounds of thrust to help launch our four Artemis astronauts inside the Orion spacecraft beyond Earth orbit and onward to the Moon. How does that horsepower compare to a racecar? World champion racecars can generate more than 1,000 horsepower as they speed around the track.

This GIF shows the four RS_25 engines on the SLS rocket igniting one by one as they prepare to launch Artemis I. A red glow comes from below the engines as they ignite. Image credit: NASAALT

As these vehicles start their engines, a series of special machinery is moving and grooving inside those engines. Turbo engines in racecars work at up to 15,000 rotations per minute, aka rpm. The turbopumps on the RS-25 engines rotate at a staggering 37,000 rpm. SLS’s RS-25 engines will burn for approximately eight minutes, while racecar engines generally run for 1 ½-3 hours during a race.

NASA engineers test a model of the Space Launch System rocket in a wind tunnel at NASA’s Langley Research Center. The image is taken from a test camera. Image credit: NASAALT

To use that power effectively, both rockets and racecars are designed to slice through the air as efficiently as possible.

While rockets want to eliminate as much drag as possible, racecars carefully use the air they’re slicing through to keep them pinned to the track and speed around corners faster. This phenomenon is called downforce.

This GIF shows a full-scale solid rocket booster being tested at Northrop Grumman’s facility in Utah. The booster, laying horizontal, ignites and fires. Image credit: Northrop GrummanALT

Steering these mighty machines is a delicate process that involves complex mechanics.

Most racecars use a rack-and-pinion system to convert the turn of a steering wheel to precisely point the front tires in the right direction. While SLS doesn’t have a steering wheel, its powerful engines and solid rocket boosters do have nozzles that gimbal, or move, to better direct the force of the thrust during launch and flight.

Members of the Artemis I launch control team monitor data at their consoles inside the Launch Control Center at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center during the first launch attempt countdown on August 29. Image credit: NASA/Kim ShiflettALT

Racecar drivers and astronauts are laser focused, keeping their sights set on the destination. Pit crews and launch control teams both analyze data from numerous sensors and computers to guide them to the finish line. In the case of our mighty SLS rocket, its 212-foot-tall core stage has nearly 1,000 sensors to help fly, track, and guide the rocket on the right trajectory and at the right speed. That same data is relayed to launch teams on the ground in real time. Like SLS, world-champion racecars use hundreds of sensors to help drivers and teams manage the race and perform at peak levels.

Rockets, Racecars, and the Physics of Going Fast

Knowing how to best use, manage, and battle the physics of going fast, is critical in that final lap. You can learn more about rockets and racecars here.

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