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Getting into space takes a lot of power. It is also not easy to build a space craft that is able to produce this kind of power on its own. This is where the booster rocket comes into play. To help get space craft into low orbit and beyond space programs use rockets that help assist the main craft at the launch. Booster rockets come in different shapes and forms depending on the type of space craft and the time period. Since space exploration has a 40 year history there have been different designs for booster rockets starting with the Apollo and Soyuz programs.
The most familiar type of booster rocket right now is the SRB solid rocket booster for the NASA space shuttle. The Shuttle has its own thrusters that help with the launch but it relies on the extra thrust provided by the solid rocket boosters to reach escape velocity. The solid rocket boosters use a solid propellant that when burned provides the additional thrust. When the craft reaches the needed escape velocity the rockets fall off.
The NASA space program uses solid rockets because they provide greater thrust than traditional liquid propellant rockets. They also don’t have the extensive refrigeration and insulation issues that such rockets have. The design is relatively simpler and is easier to reproduce. Liquid propellants like hydrazine have to be stored at very cold temperatures to stay in their liquid state. They also need extensive valve systems to regulate flow.
There are other designs used elsewhere for rockets. This main alternate design is the stage booster rocket. Rather than strapping two separate rockets. The booster engines are integrated into the design of the main rocket. Like the SRB the rocket engines drop off when expended. This design is still in use by the Russian, European, and Chinese space programs as well as by NASA. However someday booster rockets may become obsolete as research is being done into making craft that launch without assistance. This breakthrough would go a long way to reducing the price of entering into space. Private space flight companies like Virgin Galactic are looking at different technologies like plane launches or air breathing jets that can move at hypersonic speeds.
We have written many articles about booster rockets for Universe Today. Here’s an article about what it’s like to be a solid rocket booster, and here’s an article about the new shuttle solid rocket booster tested.
We’ve recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about the space shuttle. Listen here, Episode 127: The US Space Shuttle.