In this, the first of a four-part interconnected astronautics-based S.T.E.M. project, students will calculate the change in orbital velocity (Delta V) needed to change the orbital altitude of a spacecraft.

Students will also calculate the total round-trip time to transfer between orbits, and use that information to determine the duration of their space mission.

Start Date
First Quarter
Spring Semester

Time Frame
About 4.5 weeks

Mathematics Used
Square Root Equations

Activating Previous Learning
Basic Mathematics



Lower Orbital Altitude (km)
Higher Orbital Altitude (km)
On-Station Time (days)

Periapsis delta V (kps)
Apoapsis delta V (kps)
Delta V Budget (kps)
Transfer Time (days)
Mission Duration (days)


In order to raise or lower a spacecraft that is in orbit around a body such as the Earth, the Hohmann equations are used. These equations determine the change in orbital velocity (Delta V) needed to go to different orbital altitudes.
Hohmann Transfer Orbit Equations
where r1 and r2 are the distances of the spacecraft from the center of the orbiting body.

The time (in seconds) it takes to change the orbital altitude of a spacecraft is:
Hohmann Transfer Time Equation
Therefore, orbits are circular and the transfer orbit is an ellipse:
Hohmann Transfer Orbit Diagram
In the diagram above, green represents the lower circular orbital altitude, and red represents the higher circular orbital altitude. Yellow represents the elliptical transfer orbit from green to red (or dashed yellow representing from red to green).

The first delta V rocket engine firing is done at the lowest point in the elliptical transfer orbit (periapsis). This puts the spacecraft on the path in yellow. At the highest point in the elliptical orbit (apoapsis), another rocket engine firing occurs, this time circularizing the orbit (in red). To go home, simply reverse the procedure.

We will use as inputs the lower and higher orbital altitudes, as well as the On-Station Time, which is the number of days the astronauts spend at their destination. The Delta V Budget is found by adding the 2 delta v numbers together. The Mission Duration is the On-Station Time added to twice the Transfer Time.


Delta V and Mission Duration App
The Mobile App
The app was created using AppSheet software, a free tool that allows users to create fairly sophisticated smart phone apps.

The app is tied to a Google Spreadsheet, and all of the equations are handled inside the app.

The user can calculate their own delta v and mission duration figures by simply inputting:

1. a name for the orbital mission
2. periapsis orbital altitude
3. apoapsis orbital altitude
4. time at the destination location.

The app does the rest! Output includes:
+ Periapsis Delta V
+ Apoapsis Delta V
+ 0.75% Delta V Reserve
+ Delta V Budget
+ Mission Duration

(you must use the Safari browser)

The Google Spreadsheet App
This app is initially constructed with the Input/Output sheet and the Constants sheet in place and the numbers entered.

The project info can be entered after the app has been built.

Note: The sample spreadsheet has the Project 2, 3 and 4 information that is not needed for this project grayed-out. It is recommended that space is allowed for these future calculations.

Students that know how to use spreadsheet software should be encouraged to create their own app (remember, Google Apps are free!)


Teacher Lesson Plan
Use the slide-show presentation below to give a lesson about basic orbital mechanics and calculating Delta V and Orbital Transfer Time.

In this lesson, students will identify the various aspects of an orbital transfer diagram, matching them with the terms and definitions.

Students then practice the calculations using pencil, paper, and scientific calculator.

Students then learn about the Engineering Design Process, and begin the process of laying the ground work for the app built with a spreadsheet. Sample Open Source computer code is provided to aid students with their spreadsheet formulas.

Screenshots of the Teacher Presentation:

Vocabulary Fill In of the Hohmann Transfer Orbit Diagram

Other properties that describe an orbit

Delta V and Mission Duration Student Worksheet

Open Source Computer Code

This Lesson Plan is Powered by E⁸
  1. Engage
    • Lesson Objectives
    • Lesson Goals
    • Lesson Organization
  2. Explore
    • The Rocket Equation
    • Delta V Components and Definitions
    • Additional Terms and Definitions
  3. Explain
    • Basic Orbital Mechanics
    • Hohmann Transfer Orbit Equations
    • Hohmann Transfer Time Equation
    • Mission Duration Equation
  4. Elaborate
    • Advanced Orbital Mechanics
  5. Exercise
    • Space Mission Parameters
    • Space Mission Design Scenario 1
    • Space Mission Design Scenario 2

  6. Engineer
    • The Engineering Design Process
    • SMDA Spaceflight Plan
    • Designing a Prototype
    • SMDA Software
  7. Express
    • Displaying the SMDA
    • Progress Report
  8. Evaluate
    • Post Engineering Assessment

Student Workbooks and Handouts
This lesson is delivered over several class periods at the beginning of the 4.5 week period, with students working on the apps for the rest of the time. It is recommended that a few minutes of each class period be set aside for student help.

The Student Workbook (below) accompanies the Teacher Lesson Plan.


Spaceships are useless unless they have a place to go. These missions will add a sense of realism to the student project. Students will be placed into groups and asked to determine the total Crew Size and the total Spacecraft Weight for a given space mission:

Other missions can be created and modified to suit the interest of the students. For example, a group that is interested in dinosaurs could be given a mission to find fossils on Mars. Or a group that wants to start their own business one day could get a mission to make a profit on placing a satellite in orbit.

Encourage students to design their own missions. This project is very flexible in that regard.


Students will be asked to present their findings to the rest of the class. Parents are, of course, encouraged to attend (it is suggested that a pot luck would make things more interesting).

Each presentation will have slides that introduces the group, describes the mission, and displays the calculations. A short biography of the person named after the spacecraft should also be included.

Students that know how to use presentation software should be encouraged to create their own presentations (remember, Google Apps are free!)


Students will also create a website and embed their slide presentation and their S.T.E.M. app in a webpage. Their journal will be kept on the webpage as well. If the class presentation is recorded to video, it can be uploaded to Youtube, then embedded in the webpage.

Therefore, each webpage (one for each project) should have the following items:
  1. Embedded Slide Presentation
  2. Embedded view of S.T.E.M. app
  3. Link to S.T.E.M. app
  4. Link to working prototype of S.T.E.M. app
  5. Journal Entries
  6. Embedded Youtube video of the presentation
(Link opens in a new window)

This is not a scoring rubric; rather it is a guide of what is expected for the project.

The presentation should take between 5 and 10 minutes, unless there are a lot of questions from the audience. For a class with 6 groups, this comes out to between 30 and 60 minutes.

Students should be encouraged to dress professionally, and to practice their presentations beforehand.

Scoring and grading these projects is left up to the professionalism of the teacher.


The linear equations used in this project should be easy enough for the average high school Algebra 2 student. The teacher may need to guide students through the setup of the equations and the calculations. As the semester progress, the concepts and the mathematics will become more challenging.


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