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Rocket Performance: Mass

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There is another important factor affecting the performance of a rocket. The weight of a rocket can make the difference between a successful flight and just wallowing around on the launch pad. As a basic principle of rocket flight, it can be said that for a rocket to leave the ground, the engine must produce a thrust that is greater than the total weight of the vehicle. It is obvious that a rocket with a lot of unnecessary weight will not be as efficient as one that is trimmed to just the bare essentials. For an ideal rocket, the total weight of the vehicle should be distributed following this general formula:

Payloads may be satellites, astronauts, or that part of the spacecraft that will travel to other planets or moons.

In determining the effectiveness of a rocket design, rocketeers speak in terms of mass fraction (MF). The mass of the propellants of the rocket divided by the total mass of the rocket gives mass fraction:

MF = (Mass of Propellants) / (Total Mass)

The mass fraction of the ideal rocket given above is 0.91. From the mass fraction formula, one might think that an MF of 1.0 is perfect, but then the entire rocket would be nothing more than a lump of propellants that would simply ignite into a fireball. The larger the MF number, the less payload the rocket can carry; the smaller the MF number, the less its range becomes. An MF number of 0.91 is a good balance between payload-carrying capability and range. The Space Shuttle has an MF of approximately 0.82. The MF varies between the different orbiters in the Space Shuttle fleet and with the different payload weights of each mission.

Large rockets, able to carry a spacecraft into space have serious weight problems. To reach space with proper orbital velocities, a great deal of propellant is needed; therefore, the tanks, engines, and associated hardware become larger. Up to a point, bigger rockets fly farther than smaller rockets, but when they become too large their structures weigh them down too much, and the mass fraction is reduced to an impossible number.

A solution to the problem of giant rockets weighing too much can be credited to the 16th-century fireworks maker Johann Schmidlap. Schmidlap attached small rockets to the top of big ones. When the large rocket was exhausted, the rocket casing was dropped behind and the remaining rocket fired. Much higher altitudes were achieved by this method. (The Space Shuttle follows the step rocket principle by dropping off its solid rocket boosters and external tank when they are exhausted of propellants.) The rockets used by Schmidlap were called step rockets. Today this technique of building a rocket is called staging. Thanks to staging, it has become possible not only to reach outer space but the Moon and other planets too.

For a historical perspective about rockets, click here

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Updated: March 12, 2004