SHAYNE MCKEE | The History of Rocket Science
Rocket technology has evolved for more than 2000 years. Today’s rockets are a product of a long tradition of ingenuity and experimentation.
Very few, if any, of humanity’s inventions are designed to withstand equally extreme conditions. Rockets are subjected to awesome g-forces at lift-off, and experience extreme hot spots in places where aerodynamic friction acts most strongly, and extreme cold due to liquid hydrogen/oxygen at cryogenic temperatures. Operating a rocket is a balance act, and the line between a successful launch and catastrophic blow-out is often razor thin. No other engineering system rivals the complexity and hierarchy of technologies that need to interface seamlessly to guarantee sustained operation. It is no coincidence that “rocket science” is the quintessential cliché to describe the mind-blowingly complicated.
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The fundamental principle of rocket propulsion, spewing hot gases through a nozzle to induce motion in the opposite direction, is nicely illustrated by two historic examples. The Roman writer Aulus Gellius tells a story of Archytas, who, sometime around 400 BC, built a flying pigeon out of wood. The pigeon was held aloft by a jet of steam or compressed air escaping through a nozzle. Three centuries later, Hero of Alexandria invented the aeolipile based on the same principle of using escaping steam as a propulsive fluid. In the aeolipile, a hollow sphere was connected to a water bath via tubing, which also served as a primitive type of bearing, suspending the sphere in mid-air. A fire beneath the water basin created steam which was subsequently forced to flow into the sphere via the connected tubing. The only way for the gas to escape was through two L-shaped outlets pointing in opposite directions. The escaping steam induced a moment about the hinged support effectively rotating the sphere about its axis.
How does propulsion Work?
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The propulsive or Froude efficiency
of a jet engine is defined by the power output divided by the rate of change of kinetic energy of the air. The kinetic energy of the air represents the power input to the system. The power output P is the product of force output i.e. the thrust F and the resulting air speed
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