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Q & A: Space Shuttle Takeoff

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Most recent answer: 02/24/2011
Q:
Why do space shuttles always lift off with an angle and not perfectly straight up to the sky?
- Anonymous
A:
Hi there,

Thanks for the question! After the space shuttle takes off, it reaches orbit after only eight minutes! In that time, it climbs to about 200 miles above the surface. At this height, it has to travel 17,000 miles an hour to successfully orbit around the Earth. Therefore, it has to start accelerating right away to reach that height and velocity so quickly. As it launches, it has an initial velocity of 800 miles an hour eastward (because of its position situated on a rotating Earth), so as it starts accelerating it will appear to "bend" one way or the other! Since it only has eight minutes, it starts bending off at an angle right after takeoff.

You may be interested to know the shuttle always bends the same way. This is because it always orbits west to east. This is because of the Earth's rotation. As we said before, it has an initial velocity 800 mph to the east, so to travel eastward it only has to change its velocity by 16,200 miles an hour, while traveling westward it has to lose the initial velocity and then accelerate to 17,000 mph, a net change of 17,800 mph. This takes more time and fuel, so the eastward orbit is always taken.

Thanks for the question!
Ben M.



(published on 02/24/2011)

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