What’s a hydrogen rocket?

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Hydrogen rockets use hydrogen and oxygen as propellant, releasing energy when ignited. The reaction is efficient and used in space launches, but hydrogen must be kept in liquid form. Model rockets on Earth use the same concept, but don’t need to carry oxygen. Simple experiments can illustrate the power of the reaction.

A hydrogen rocket is a vehicle that uses hydrogen and oxygen as its primary propellant. By mixing the two gases and then igniting them, a reaction occurs that releases a large amount of energy. This energy can launch a vehicle straight up and, if large enough, into space. The widespread use of hydrogen rockets in the space industry over the years can be attributed to the fact that it uses one of the most efficient combustion reactions that can be created for propulsion.

The concept behind how and why a hydrogen rocket works has to do with the reaction between oxygen and hydrogen. When hydrogen is exposed to an ignition source, it will not ignite unless a specific amount of oxygen is also present. A hydrogen rocket mixes hydrogen and oxygen in the correct ratio in a combustion chamber and then ignites the mixture, directing force behind the rocket to get it going.

The amount of energy released by the reaction is very efficient compared to other fuels. Almost all of the large rockets used to launch vehicles into space through time used hydrogen and oxygen as fuel for this reason. One of the only drawbacks is that hydrogen is not compact like other fuels and must be kept in liquid form, which also means it must be kept very cold until it ignites.

The types of hydrogen rockets used in space carry both hydrogen and oxygen with them because neither is present there. On Earth, there are hydrogen-fueled model rockets that use the same concept to get liftoff but don’t have to carry oxygen with them because it’s in the air. For a model rocket on Earth, oxygen will continue to enter the combustion chamber, where it can be ignited when mixed with hydrogen from a fuel tank inside the model.

The hydrogen rocket concept also helped create a number of science experiments to illustrate the engine’s fundamental concepts. One of the simplest experiments involves filling a plastic bottle with hydrogen and oxygen and placing a device inside that will cause a spark. The bottle is attached to a rail to guide it up. The spark ignites and the gas inside the cylinder explodes, throwing it skyward. Model rockets that are launched this way can actually reach a significant altitude in relation to their size, illustrating the power of the reaction.

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