Last night, a Navy Trident II D5 missile test was conducted off the coast of California that sent Twitter into a storm. Everyone was making speculations that the light they were observing was a UFO, a meteor, amongst other things. However, this missile test served as a great example of visualizing the staging that occurs in rocket propulsion.
Now lets talk rocket propulsion! simplified of course 😉
Staging is the act of separating the propellent into different compartments. This way when you are done using, let’s say, half of your propellent you don’t have to drag the container up all the way with you for the rest of the burn. Instead you can drop off that excess weight!
There isn’t a clear cut way to do staging, so here are a variety of examples of how it is done along with videos of the dispensing of the stages. There are two main categories: parallel staging and serial staging. The space shuttle is an example of parallel staging. As you can see in the end of this video, the shuttle dispenses the two stages on its sides. There is also a plethora of serial staging including the Saturn V which had 3 stages while taking the USA to the moon; this video starts out with the 1st stage separation of the rocket. Atlas III a ULA launcher used in 2000 to 2005 had 1.5 stages; the video starts out with the separation. Atlas V, ULA’s current launcher, follows the typical 2 stage pattern. At minute 1:48, this video, which is at night, shows the exhaust from dispensing the lower stage and the upper stage burns just like the missile test looked yesterday. Now let’s go back to that video of the Trident II D5 missile; you can see at around 1:20 the burns from the separation. Looks pretty familiar right? Next time this happens, I wholeheartedly condone your raining on your friends’ parade by pointing out how it is clearly not a UFO and showing off some of your rocket science knowledge too!