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Infographic: Powering the Space Shuttle

How much energy does it take get the space shuttle launched, into orbit, and back to Earth again? This infographic provides facts, stats and data on the soon-to-be-retired space shuttles.


Infographic courtesy of WellHome

About 

Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Brent Logan July 12, 2011, 10:02 PM

    Cool! But I’m confused on a couple of counts:

    1. Why does it take only the same energy one person consumes in a year to get into orbit and “enough power to run 1 million homes an entire year” to get back down? How do these two compare?

    2. Shouldn’t it take a unit of energy and not power to stop a shuttle?

    I’m looking forward to whatever replaces the shuttle. It has carried many dreams into space.

    • WaxyMary July 12, 2011, 11:59 PM

      The amount of energy as a unit would be reckoned as horse power if you wished, even as furlongs per fortnight if you cared to use archival terms — it could be expressed as KwH for both the Up and the Down part of the shuttle trip — would you prefer that unit of measure?

      The use of mental images like saying ‘the Up the gravity ladder’ part takes as much energy as a person uses in a year makes this infographic very personable — and saying it takes 2,000 MW and expressing it as person units or home units makes the point as personally as is possible for the trip ‘Down the gravity ladder’.

      The energy exchange, shuttle to atmosphere is very great; for the fall to thicker air does expend a massive amount of positional potential energy in as slow a manner as is thought possible for the materials then known to be within our ability to both produce and replenish.

      The thin shell of air heats locally and can’t lose the heat of passage rapidly enough to not become the plasma under the shuttle, When thicker denser atmosphere is encountered it too become heated to a plasma until this process tails off and there is less than enough heat being generated and creating a plasma –the pressure of the air has a great deal toward the determination of course –the heat of reentry which is not carried away by the shuttle stays aloft for days.

      If they could manage to do large S curves with a more dynamic (not a static fixed shell) lifting body it would take a longer time but still use the same total expenditure of energy. There would be less energy change per mass unit over a longer time factor. The shuttle’s PE change to KE makes for some spectacular footage, it is a shame we couldn’t have a pursuit –err, plane… to take us ‘there’ with great high definition imagery on the NASA channel.

      I too look to the future for what replaces our manned space efforts.

      Mary

      • Anonymous July 13, 2011, 2:02 AM

        There is a difference between power and energy. To see this we start with Newton’s second law F = ma. The mass m is in kilograms, and acceleration a is m/s^2 (meter per second squared). So the unit of force is kg m/s^2, which is defined as a Newton (N). Energy is the displacement of a force through a distance E = F?x, where the force moves a mass through some distance ?x. This is a Newton-meter or N m, called a Joule. Power is then the time rate of change for the generation of energy. So this is ?E/?t = F?x/?t = Fv or the displacement of a force by a velocity. I assumed a constant force here for simplicity, but that does not necessarily have to be. This has units of joule per second, or a watt. So when you get that electric bill and it says 20kilowatt-hours this means you used energy equal to multiplying 20 kilowatts by one hour (or 100 kilowatts by 2 hours or … ) and one hour is 3600 seconds. So 20 kilowatts x 3600 seconds = 72000 kW-sec = 7.2×10^7watt-sec = 7.2×10^7 joules. This is energy, or power integrated over time.

        This statement about electric energy on the shuttle is for electrical power to run the devices and systems on the shuttle. It is not about the far larger amounts of energy generated (power in a unit of time) by the rocket motors.

        LC

    • WaxyMary July 12, 2011, 11:59 PM

      The amount of energy as a unit would be reckoned as horse power if you wished, even as furlongs per fortnight if you cared to use archival terms — it could be expressed as KwH for both the Up and the Down part of the shuttle trip — would you prefer that unit of measure?

      The use of mental images like saying ‘the Up the gravity ladder’ part takes as much energy as a person uses in a year makes this infographic very personable — and saying it takes 2,000 MW and expressing it as person units or home units makes the point as personally as is possible for the trip ‘Down the gravity ladder’.

      The energy exchange, shuttle to atmosphere is very great; for the fall to thicker air does expend a massive amount of positional potential energy in as slow a manner as is thought possible for the materials then known to be within our ability to both produce and replenish.

      The thin shell of air heats locally and can’t lose the heat of passage rapidly enough to not become the plasma under the shuttle, When thicker denser atmosphere is encountered it too become heated to a plasma until this process tails off and there is less than enough heat being generated and creating a plasma –the pressure of the air has a great deal toward the determination of course –the heat of reentry which is not carried away by the shuttle stays aloft for days.

      If they could manage to do large S curves with a more dynamic (not a static fixed shell) lifting body it would take a longer time but still use the same total expenditure of energy. There would be less energy change per mass unit over a longer time factor. The shuttle’s PE change to KE makes for some spectacular footage, it is a shame we couldn’t have a pursuit –err, plane… to take us ‘there’ with great high definition imagery on the NASA channel.

      I too look to the future for what replaces our manned space efforts.

      Mary

  • squidgeny July 13, 2011, 3:02 PM

    I find this infographic rather lacking in scientific rigor!

    First it equates two values with different units (power and energy), then it calls a hydrogen molecule an element and even claims it as the most abundant element on Earth – which is simply not true whether you’re counting the entire thing, just the oceans, just the atmosphere or even just a bucket of pure water.

    It would also have been nicer had it given more specific figures, such as actual masses rather than a “number of buses” equivalent. But then I suppose it is aimed at kids.

    • Tom Smith July 13, 2011, 7:53 PM

      I stopped after “42 school buses”, in fear that I would stumble upon a “n football fields” measurement

  • Kevin Parker July 13, 2011, 7:49 PM

    It’s not true that most of the smoke is water vapor from hydrogen-oxygen combustion. The SSME exhaust is practically invisible. The visible exhaust is from the SRBs, and there’s some nasty stuff in that.

  • Kevin Parker July 13, 2011, 7:49 PM

    It’s not true that most of the smoke is water vapor from hydrogen-oxygen combustion. The SSME exhaust is practically invisible. The visible exhaust is from the SRBs, and there’s some nasty stuff in that.

  • Ken Lord July 13, 2011, 8:02 PM

    pretty graphics (except for the very first depiction of the shuttle that looks like a puffed up kids toy) … silly numbers.

    I’d be curious to know if the graphic design artist did the research, not that graphic design artists are only limited to knowing about graphics, I’m just curious.

  • swakker July 14, 2011, 1:41 AM

    I can’t wait to see how we can conserve energy as space travel progresses in the future. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHrBhtNCvgY

  • Torbjörn Larsson July 15, 2011, 10:42 PM

    It is telling that the STS had ~ 30 % goal achievement in one of the two goals it was capable meeting. (Luckily it was more reliable and secure/person lifted than its target and many competitors.) And that despite using mostly cheap solid “boosters” for lift!

    Also: this is fun, we can nitpick this into paper shreds.

    – “Microgravity” is indeed mostly an expression for free-fall weight (i.e. ~ zero weight).

    But it is not true that free-fall acceleration at LEO is a “slow pull”. The orbiter is falling fast in its orbit! The free-fall acceleration in LEO is something like 70 – 80 % of surface gravity.

    – Returning crafts aren’t pushing “a wave of energy” ahead of them. They are compressing the air ahead.

    Perhaps they are thinking of the shock front.

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