Rocket science includes ideas of forces and motion, how rockets work and some of the challenges for those wanting to make rockets go faster and higher. 

In the last 60 years, rocket science and technology has certainly reached new heights. Many rockets have been used to explore our atmosphere and to travel further from the Earth to explore the Moon, Venus, Mars and other parts of the Solar System and beyond. Other rockets are used to launch the many satellites that we rely on for weather forecasting and communication. Rockets are also used for fireworks and entertainment.

Rocket science and design challenges

The science of forces and motion began to be properly understood when Sir Isaac Newton wrote a book called Principia over 200 years ago. This contained his three laws of motion and paved the way for people to understand how rockets work. Before this time, a lot of people thought rockets needed air to push against. It turns out they don’t! Rockets work even better in the vacuum of space than they do in the Earth’s atmosphere.

Rocket design is all about finding an optimal balance between thrustmass and aerodynamics. Any change to one of these will affect the overall motion of the rocket:

  • Thrust is the force that pushes a rocket. There are many types of rocket engines that use different propellants. Find out more in the article Rockets and thrust.
  • A rocket has mass as payload and propellant, but with each extra bit of mass, there is extra gravity that requires extra thrust.
  • Aerodynamics is the study of how air flows over a rocket. Aerodynamics only affects a rocket while it is in an atmosphere. Find out how a nose cone and fins help a rocket in the article Rocket aerodynamics.

Meet our rocket scientists and engineers

Our rockets content looks at some of the science and related technology issues that are being solved by three different groups working on rockets and space technology.

Peter Beck is CEO and technical director of Rocket Lab, the company behind New Zealand’s first attempt at commercial space flight in 2009. In achieving this feat, Rocket Lab scientists and engineers needed to solve many challenges.

Mark Rocket is a space enthusiast and investor. Mark was a director of Rocket Lab during its early years and believes that Rocket Lab is continuing New Zealand’s proud involvement in the space industry. Mark is also the first New Zealander to have purchased a ticket as a space tourist with Virgin Galactic.

It’s always fun to rumble the ground!

- Peter Beck, Rocket Lab

Avinash Rao works with fellow PhD student Malcolm Snowden at the University of Canterbury building and launching rockets. They are developing technology to automatically control rockets.

Dr Susan Krumdieck is an Associate Professor at Canterbury University who is helping to develop new ceramic materials for the next generation of space vehicles.

Take up the rocket challenge

Activities such as Effervescent canister rockets and Balloon car challenge give students the chance to develop their science understanding as they solve their own rocket propulsion challenges.

Key terms

For explanations of key concepts, see Investigating rockets - key terms.

Nature of science

Understanding science concepts is essential for engineers as they develop new technologies for rockets.

Useful links

Check out Juno mission updates.

    Published 30 November 2011