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What Is Aerodynamics?
February 5, 2014
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Aerodynamics is the way objects move through air. The rules of aerodynamics explain how an airplane is able to fly. Anything that moves through air is affected by aerodynamics, from a rocket blasting off, to a kite flying. Since they are surrounded by air, even cars are affected by aerodynamics.
 

Dynamics of Flight   →

What Are the Four Forces of Flight?
The four forces of flight are lift, weight, thrust and drag. These forces make an object move up and down, and faster or slower. The amount of each force compared to its opposing force determines how an object moves through the air.

Future Flight Design   →

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What Is Weight?
Gravity is a force that pulls everything down to Earth. Weight is the amount of gravity multiplied by the mass of an object. Weight is also the downward force that an aircraft must overcome to fly. A kite has less mass and therefore less weight to overcome than a jumbo jet, but they both need the same thing in order to fly - lift.

What Is Lift?
Lift is the push that lets something move up. It is the force that is the opposite of weight. Everything that flies must have lift. For an aircraft to move upward, it must have more lift than weight. A hot air balloon has lift because the hot air inside is lighter than the air around it. Hot air rises and carries the balloon with it. A helicopter's lift comes from the rotor blades. Their motion through the air moves the helicopter upward. Lift for an airplane comes from its wings.
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How Do an Airplane's Wings Provide Lift?
The shape of an airplane's wings is what makes it possible for the airplane to fly. Airplanes' wings are curved on top and flatter on the bottom. That shape makes air flow over the top faster than under the bottom. As a result, less air pressure is on top of the wing. This lower pressure makes the wing, and the airplane it's attached to, move up. Using curves to affect air pressure is a trick used on many aircraft. Helicopter rotor blades use this curved shape. Lift for kites also comes from a curved shape. Even sailboats use this curved shape. A boat's sail is like a wing. That's what makes the sailboat move.
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What Is Drag?
Drag is a force that pulls back on something trying to move. Drag provides resistance, making it hard to move. For example, it is more difficult to walk or run through water than through air. Water causes more drag than air. The shape of an object also affects the amount of drag. Round surfaces usually have less drag than flat ones. Narrow surfaces usually have less drag than wide ones. The more air that hits a surface, the more the drag the air produces.

What Is Thrust?
Thrust is the force that is the opposite of drag. It is the push that moves something forward. For an aircraft to keep moving forward, it must have more thrust than drag. A small airplane might get its thrust from a propeller. A larger airplane might get its thrust from jet engines. A glider does not have thrust. It can only fly until the drag causes it to slow down and land.
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Why Does NASA Study Aerodynamics?
Aerodynamics is an important part of NASA's work. The first A in NASA stands for aeronautics, which is the science of flight. NASA works to make airplanes and other aircraft better. Studying aerodynamics is an important part of that work. Aerodynamics is important to other NASA missions. When the space shuttle lands, it glides through the air. NASA had to use aerodynamics to figure out how to let the shuttle land safely. Even probes landing on Mars have to travel through the Red Planet's thin atmosphere. Having to travel through an atmosphere means aerodynamics is important on other planets too.

All images are from screenshots taken from the Future Flight Design Web site.


Read What Is Aerodynamics Grades K-4

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A drawing of an aircraft surrounded by four yellow arrows and the words Lift, Thrust, Weight and Drag
The four forces of flight help an object move through the air.
Image Credit: 
NASA
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Cartoon of a girl holding on to a horizontal bar and, behind her, a large red arrow pointing down
Weight comes from gravity pulling down on objects.
Image Credit: 
NASA
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A yellow, elongated teardrop shape is surrounded by blue dashed lines
An airfoil shape is especially good at producing lift.
Image Credit: 
NASA
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The word Air appears several times on a blue background. The words tumble around the hood of a red cartoon car
As an object moves through the air, it pushes aside air molecules.
Image Credit: 
NASA
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A drawing of a jet flying above a desert, with arrows pointing away from the jet
Thrust is the force that moves an aircraft forward.
Image Credit: 
NASA
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Page Last Updated: February 5th, 2014
Page Editor: NASA Administrator