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What Are Wind Tunnels? (Grades K-4)

This article is for students grades K-4.

Wind tunnels are large tubes with air moving inside. The tunnels are used to copy the actions of an object in flight. Researchers use wind tunnels to learn more about how an aircraft will fly. NASA uses wind tunnels to test scale models of aircraft and spacecraft. Some wind tunnels are big enough to hold full-size versions of vehicles. The wind tunnel moves air around an object, making it seem like the object is really flying.

tennis ball with smoke and airflow streams around it.

How Do Wind Tunnels Work?

Most of the time, powerful fans move air through the tube. The object to be tested is fastened in the tunnel so that it will not move. The object can be a small model of a vehicle. It can be just a piece of a vehicle. It can be a full-size aircraft or spacecraft. It can even be a common object like a tennis ball. The air moving around the still object shows what would happen if the object were moving through the air. How the air moves can be studied in different ways. Smoke or dye can be placed in the air and can be seen as it moves. Threads can be attached to the object to show how the air is moving. Special instruments are often used to measure the force of the air on the object.

How Does NASA Use Wind Tunnels for Aircraft?

NASA has more wind tunnels than any other group. The agency uses the wind tunnels in a lot of ways. One of the main ways NASA uses wind tunnels is to learn more about airplanes and how things move through the air. One of NASA’s jobs is to improve air transportation. Wind tunnels help NASA test ideas for ways to make aircraft better and safer. Engineers can test new materials or shapes for airplane parts. Then, before flying a new airplane, NASA will test it in a wind tunnel to make sure it will fly as it should.

NASA also works with others that need to use wind tunnels. That way, companies that are building new airplanes can test how the planes will fly. By letting these companies use the wind tunnels, NASA helps to make air travel safer.

A model airplane inside of a wind tunnel

How Can Wind Tunnels Help Spacecraft?

NASA also uses wind tunnels to test spacecraft and rockets. These vehicles are made to operate in space. Space has no atmosphere. Spacecraft and rockets have to travel through the atmosphere to get to space. Vehicles that take humans into space also must come back through the atmosphere to Earth.

Wind tunnels are important. NASA uses them to test the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System rockets. These rockets are called the SLS. Orion and SLS are new vehicles. They will take astronauts into space. NASA must test the systems in wind tunnels to see if they are safe to fly. And NASA must see what happens when Orion comes back to Earth through the atmosphere.

Wind tunnels can even help engineers design spacecraft to work on other worlds. Mars has a thin atmosphere. It is important to know what the Martian atmosphere will do to vehicles that are landing there. Spacecraft designs and parachutes are tested in wind tunnels set up to be like the Martian atmosphere.  

Model rocket in wind tunnel

What Types of Wind Tunnels Does NASA Use?

NASA has many different types of wind tunnels. They are located at NASA centers all around the country. The wind tunnels come in a lot of sizes. Some are only a few inches square, and some are large enough to test a full-size airplane. Some wind tunnels test aircraft at very slow speeds. But some wind tunnels are made to test at hypersonic speeds. That is more than 4,000 miles per hour!

More About Wind Tunnels

Video: Our World: Wind Tunnels in Action
What is Aerodynamics?

Read What Are Wind Tunnels? (Grades 5-8)