Perhaps you’ve looked up at the night sky and tried to count the stars or dreamt of being an astronaut. In 1961 humans first launched into space, eight years later in 1969, man first set foot on the moon. As we now explore the outer reaches of our solar system the concept of humans landing on Mars is now a genuine goal to achieve in our lifetime – critical to all of these monumental achievements has been the use of maths.
Understanding the size and mass of planets, their gravitational forces and how to use acceleration and deceleration for rockets to explore space are just some examples of maths being used by rocket engineers, astrophysicists and astronauts.
Every aspect of space travel uses maths. Inside spaceships, astronauts routinely measure their height to study the effects of zero gravity which extends and stretches their spine. This makes them taller when in outer space. How cool is that?
Space begins around 100 kilometres above the Earth, where the shell of our Earth’s atmosphere around our planet becomes so thin that nothing can fly. Above Earth’s atmosphere, astronauts enter an environment where there is infinite blackness, no air, zero gravity, incredibly cold temperatures (-270 degrees Celsius) and nothing but the quiet void of endless space.
Our planetary system is the only system that is officially called a “solar system”. However, astronomers have discovered more than 3,000 other stars with planets orbiting them in our galaxy (and that’s just what they have found so far). Our solar system consists of eight planets that all orbit around the sun. These planets are all of different temperatures and sizes.
Uranus is the coldest planet in the solar system, with a minimum temperature of -224 degrees Celsius. Whereas Venus is the hottest, with a surface temperature of 475 degrees Celsius. Venus’ extreme heat means it is not safe to inhabit. Measuring and understanding planetary temperatures helps our understanding of our solar system and our expectation of where life may exist.
Understanding the size and mass of planets is another example of maths being brought into outer space!
Space travel involves enormous distances and a commonly used maths method called trigonometry is especially helpful to calculate the distances between planets, stars and galaxies that are measured in millions and millions of miles. In fact, these distances are so large that distance is often referred to in light years. Not a Buzz Lightyear! but the amount of distance travelled by light in a year, and light is the fastest thing known– so it’s incredibly fast, which means a light year is a really, really long way!
A key aspect of space travel is launching a rocket into orbit and a spaceship’s re-entry back into our Earth’s atmosphere to safely bring our brave astronauts home. In such circumstances, engineers use another common maths method called calculus to calculate how fast the rocket needs to accelerate to break free of Earth’s gravity and launch into space. Acceleration describes how rockets get faster and faster after take-off. The greatest acceleration happens at lift off. If a rocket is launched from the surface of the Earth, it needs to reach a speed fast enough to escape Earth’s gravity to reach space. This speed of 7.9 kilometres per second, or 28,000 kilometres per hour, is known as the orbital velocity; it corresponds to more than 20 times the speed of sound. Once in orbit the force of the rocket’s acceleration away from the Earth is balanced by the Earth’s gravity pull so that it stays at a constant distance from Earth.
What goes up must come down! So, when it’s time for our intrepid astronauts to come home they must decelerate their spaceship – which is the reverse of launching. They need to slow down so that Earth’s gravity can overcome the spaceships speed and pull it safely back to Earth. So, the spaceship will slow from an orbital speed of around 28,000 km per hour to 20,000 km per hour (still pretty fast!)
Maths is everywhere! It can be used anywhere from Earth to the outer most galaxies. Astronauts use it every day, and so do you!
If astronomy and space intrigues you, look deeper within STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.
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Space has only started to be explored. There are endless possibilities, and mathematics is there to help. It’s to infinity and beyond!