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How to Throw the Perfect Tight Spiral, According to NASA

The scientific guide to throwing the old pigskin around.
February 7, 2016, 8:43pm
Image: NASA

Tonight, the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers will face off for Super Bowl 50, at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California. If Hollywood has taught me anything about football, that means the athletes are currently getting amped up by high-octane motivational speeches about the value of teamwork, the power of determination, and the weak points of the opposition.

But according to Rabi Mehta, chief of the Experimental Aero-Physics Branch at NASA's Ames Research Center, the Broncos and Panthers might also benefit from a primer in aerodynamics.

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"Sports provide a great opportunity to introduce the next generation of researchers to our field of aerodynamics by showing them something they can relate to," said Mehta, in a NASA statement released Friday.

And Mehta would know, because he has devoted much of his career to studying the aerodynamic properties of sports equipment using wind tunnels at Ames—which is, incidentally, only ten miles west of Levi's Stadium. What began as a fascination with

t

he physics of

cricket curve balls

has since evolved into a wide-ranging expertise on the mechanics behind balls used in tennis, golf, football, and other sports involving projectiles. He even tested out the "Brazuca" soccer ball design for the World Cup in Brazil to assess the effect of its textural improvements on its performance.

Mehta uses wind tunnels to test out Brazuca ball. Video: Bloomberg Business/YouTube

So what's the best way to hurl that perfect play, according to NASA's state-of-the-art facilities? For starters, a killer spin.

"A football is shaped like a wing and more aerodynamic than a round ball so the flow is very different," said Mehta.

"When a quarterback throws the football he ideally wants to throw a tight spiral with high rotation rate to help stabilize the ball as it flies through the air. This produces lower drag than a wobbling ball so it will get there faster. Wobbling balls are also harder for the receiver to catch and more easily picked off by the defense."

Likewise, research at Ames has determined that to nail high-pressure kickoffs, football players should try to kick the ball into a backspin around its horizontal axis in order to maximize its odds of staying on course.

Of course, there are many other factors that influence the trajectory of a football pass or kick, from the ball's gauge pressure, to the microclimate of the stadium, to the risk of being tackled by a bunch of ripped dudes after even a second of hesitation. All the more reason to appreciate those rare winning plays that can seem so easy and transcendent, in spite of the complex forces that guide them.