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Rocket Lab

Matthew Fontaine

Academy for Math Engineering and Science

A4 Physics

Mr. Hendricks

This lab was all about predicting how high certain rockets would go given certain

engines. In order to predict how high each rocket will go, there were a few steps that needed to

be taken. First off, the force that each different type of engine gave off had to be measured.

Another thing that was vital to know was the drag coefficient. Without this it would have been

impossible to calculate drag force. To do this, a test rocket was put into a wind tunnel so that the

drag coefficient could be measured. Then numerical analysis was used to finally predict how

high the rockets would go. For this lab the numbers were as follows:

Rocket: Gold/Black Gold/Black Gold/Black Red/Silver Red/Silver Red/Yellow

Engine: A C B B C A

Measured 27.3m 165.0m 80.5m 61.1m 123.2m 59.0m


Predicted 28.2m 176.7m 71.9m 74.0m 179.3m 64.7m



There could be many reasons for doing a project such as this in a physics class. The most

prominent of which is definitely being able to apply the knowledge gained throughout the year in

a real world problem. The rocket project involves not only kinematics, but also dynamics.

Kinematics is the study of motion and acceleration. Dynamics is the study of how forces affect

those ideas present in kinematics. By testing the different components of the rocket, it was

possible to determine important factors such as impulse, momentum, the drag coefficient, and

drag force in general. The impulse is defined as the average force multiplied by the change in

time. When the rocket engines were being tested and the data was plot onto a force versus time
graph, the data was segmented into thin rectangles so that the average force/area under the curve

could be calculated. Then, the net impulse could be determined and thus, the type of engine that

was being tested. Momentum is defined as the mass of an object multiplied by the velocity of

that object.

The impulse momentum theorem, which states that the impulse is equal to the change in

momentum, is a key relationship which plays a huge role in how to predict the heights of the

various rockets. In the wind tunnel test, the drag force coefficient was calculated. The drag force

coefficient is the variable “k” in the equation Fd = kv². It basically reflects how aerodynamic any

particular object is. The more aerodynamic the object, the smaller the value of k. Using this drag

coefficient and the equation above, the drag force on each individual rocket can be calculated.

This is important because air resistance affects objects more at high speeds than low speeds. A

rocket’s velocity is obviously extremely high and would therefore be ignorant to not factor in air

resistance when estimating the height. As mentioned before, numerical analysis is key in

determining how high a rocket will travel. Calculating the area underneath the force versus time

graph that was acquired from the thrust analysis is much too complicated to solve analytically.

For this reason it must be broken up into many smaller segments. Solving each of those segments

and combining them will yield an approximation for the actual answer.
Thrust Analysis

To predict how high a rocket will travel, it is important to understand many things such

as the type of engine and air resistance. This section of the lab talks about the data representing

the force of a particular engine. That way, the specific type of engine could be calculated. The

data that was collected measured the thrust of the engine every tenth of a second. This

information is vital for estimating how high the

rockets will travel once launched.

The equipment setup is important to

understand for this lab. The rocket engine is

attached to the digital force gauge and also

strapped down to a cart. To ignite the rocket, an

igniter wire was used. The phosphorus which the wire

was coated in acted as the spark when an electrical current was run through it remotely. The cart

and duct tape held the rocket in place while the force gauge measured the force of the engine.

The whole experiment happens very quickly, therefore

it was impractical to try to time the whole thing. To solve this

problem, something called “trigger mode” was used. This means

that the calculator began recording data when is saw the thrust begin.

The trigger for this particular case was when the force read by the force gauge exceeded -1N.

The program that was used to capture the data was called “Logger Pro.” Data was recorded every

tenth of a second for ten seconds resulting in 100 data points. For the sake of clarity and

thoroughness, one second’s worth of data was recorded before the trigger point. There are two

things to note about recording the data. Firstly, many factors such as an uneven surface can result
in a force that shouldn’t be present. To counter this force, it is important to “zero” the force

gauge so that it is only reading the force output from the rocket engine. Secondly, it’s important

to understand that just because one might get negative numbers as a force output does not make

the numbers incorrect. The digital force gauge reads pulling forces as positive and pushing forces

as negative. Therefore, for this experiment, the forces will all be negative.

x 1 is the time in seconds and y1 is the force. Note that all the forces have been made

positive but were originally negative.

After 2.2 seconds the force was hovering slightly above zero and therefore was not

included when calculating the impulse of the rocket engine. Impulse is defined as force

multiplied by time. Since the graph above is a Thrust (Force) vs

Time curve, the area underneath the curve will give the approximate
impulse. Since the graph is not a normal geometric shape, the easiest way to find the area under

the curve is to break up the graph into many skinny rectangles, find the area of all those

rectangles, and add them all together. In this case, rectangles with width 0.1 were used.

Impulse =


Impulse = 0.1(88.4) = 8.84

The letter that begins a specific type of rocket

engine gives the impulse of that engine.

A calculated impulse of 8.84 is in the range

that a “C engine” is defined. Since impulse = Force *

Time, rearranging the equation gives Force =

Impulse/Time. In this case, Force = 8.84/2.1 = 4.21N.

This is the average force of the rocket engine. Given

the impulse and the average force, it’s now possible

to conclude that the engine whose thrust was recorded

was a C4-6 engine. The “C” coming from the impulse

and the “4” coming from the average force.

The actual engine was a C6-5. In every rocket engine there is error due to the

manufacturing. However, the data recorded for the engine had another flaw. The engine became

tilted during the experiment and therefore the flames were not coming out horizontally as

intended. When the actual rocket is launched, it is important to understand and hopefully correct

errors like these.

Drag Force (Air Resistance)

Drag force plays an important role when launching rockets. To calculate the drag force of

a rocket, it is necessary to obtain the value of “k” in the equation Fdrag = kv². This value “k” is

known as the drag coefficient. Air resistance is very important when it comes to rockets as

opposed to other objects. As seen in the above equation, the force of air resistance on an object is

proportional to the square of that object’s velocity. This means that the faster an object is

moving, the more air resistance affects that object. However, velocity is not the only factor that

determines the amount of air resistance that acts on an object. Another thing to consider is the

shape of the object in question. Sharp corners on an object in either the front OR the back tend to

increase the drag coefficient. This is the reason modern cars have smooth, curved lines rather

than boxy shapes. The smooth shape decreases the drag coefficient and causes the car to get

better gas mileage. In either case, if air resistance was ignored, it would be impossible to predict

the heights of the rockets.

As seen in the drawing above, there is a honeycomb structure which the air flows in and

out of. This is necessary because without it, the air flow would be extremely turbulent. This

would in turn cause the rocket to shake making it very difficult to get an accurate reading of the

angle. The readings were obtained simply from observers which read an angle off of a protractor

when the rocket began blowing in the wind. Of course, since there is no instrument that directly
calculates the drag coefficient which is why the angles were needed. By deriving the following

equation, it’s possible to use the angles to calculate the drag coefficient manually.

Using the above equation and the measured angles, it’s now possible to calculate the drag

force. Since the measured angles were 25, 25, and 20 degrees, the average angle which was used

in the equation was 23 ⅓ degrees. Using the mass of the red and yellow rocket which is 0.038 kg

and the velocity which is 32m/s, it’s finally time to plug in all the values to find the value for kd.

The value of the drag coefficient turns out to be 0.0003 for the red and yellow rocket. Using the

equation Fdrag = kv², the drag force is calculated to be approximately 0.31N. The estimated kd

value for the other rockets, however, was 0.0005 as they were slightly larger. This assumption

came from the idea that the larger rockets would likely have a drag coefficient similar to that of a

ping pong ball. This assumption had to be made because the other rockets were too large to put

in the wind tunnel. Plus, this would lead to better data and in turn better height predictions.
Numerical Analysis

Using both the thrust data that was collected and the calculated drag coefficient, it is now

possible to predict the heights of various rockets given certain types of engines. The thrust of any

rocket is not constant, it’s always changing. To account for this, the data is broken up into many

small time segments. Then, it’s okay to assume the force remains constant during all those time

segments and calculate a fairly accurate height for the rockets. Each individual time segment is a

different problem and would therefore take a long time to complete by hand. For this reason, a

spreadsheet was used. Each time segment had a length of 0.1 seconds. The thrust data for these

time segments was recorded. To start, the thrust from 0.0 seconds and 0.1 seconds is averaged.

The program also calculates the drag force by multiplying the calculated drag coefficient by the

square of the velocity. Using the average thrust and the drag force, the average net force can be

calculated. This is done by subtracting mg and the drag force from the average thrust. To convert

the average net force to the average net impulse, simply multiply the net force by the time

segment (0.1s). It’s important to also take note of the rocket’s initial velocity, which at t = 0.0 is

obviously 0. From these numbers it’s possible to calculate the final velocity. This is done by

multiplying the net force by the time segment (0.1), dividing by the mass of the rocket (0.102kg),

and finally adding on the initial velocity. Now that the final velocity has been obtained, the

average velocity can be obtained by adding the final velocity to the initial velocity and dividing

by two. Lastly, the height of the rocket at that particular moment is equal to the average velocity

multiplied by the time segment and then added to the initial height of the rocket. For the first row

in the spreadsheet the initial height of the rocket will be zero. This is what the spreadsheet does

for each and every time interval until there is no more data left to run.
The easiest way to find the maximum height that the rocket is predicted to reach is to use

the spreadsheet. To figure this out, simply look at all the numbers in the “final height” column.

For a while these numbers will be increasing, indicating that the rocket is still rising. After a bit,

the numbers will begin to increase at a decreasing rate, this means that the rocket is starting to

slow down. Eventually the numbers will start decreasing, meaning the rocket is falling. After this

point it is okay to assume the rest of the numbers are irrelevant since the spreadsheet only works

when the rocket is traveling upward. Nevertheless, the largest number in the spreadsheet under

the “final height” column will be the estimate for how high each rocket will travel.

Group B predicted the heights of the following rockets with the following engines:

A8 Engine B6 Engine C6 Engine

Gold/Black Rocket 28.2m 71.9m 176.7m

Red/Silver Rocket 29.4m 74.0m 179.3m

It is extremely important to factor in air resistance. Without it, the final value for

maximum height could be drastically altered. For example, the gold/black rocket with a C6
engine weighs 0.094 kilograms. When the drag coefficient of 0.0005 is factored in, the maximum

height of this rocket is 179.3 meters. When air resistance is ignored, and the drag coefficient is 0,

the maximum height of the rocket ends up being 413.6 meters. This is an insane difference and

should make the necessity of the drag coefficient self-evident.

Obviously, there were many approximations during the data collection and interpretation.

For this reason, the estimation of how high the rockets will go will not be perfect. However,

hopefully it will be accurate enough to call the whole thing a success.

Flight Results

The rocket height predictions were made so it was finally time to actually launch the

rockets. The first thing to be picked out is a spacious place to launch the rockets. Obviously,

there is some unpredictability that goes along with launching rockets. Rarely do they go straight

up, so it’s necessary to have ample room to account for the variety of flight paths. Even then,

sometimes rockets get lost. After locating an adequate spot to launch the rockets, all those who

had never launched a rocket had their turn to try it for the first time. To set up a rocket for launch

properly, first it’s important to add wadding in order to protect the parachute from the intense

heat of the engine. Then all the different types of engines were selected so that a variety of data

could be acquired. Inside the engine an igniter is placed to set the engine off remotely. To ensure

that the igniter stayed in the engine, a small plastic plug was placed in the engine’s hole. Then,

the rockets were placed on a launch platform which utilized a vertical rod to help direct the

rocket vertically upward for the first few milliseconds of the launch. If the vertical rod weren’t

there the rockets would fail entirely, going in every which direction.

When the thrust of each engine was originally measured, each engine was set off

remotely with a nichrome wire dipped in phosphorus connected to a battery. To launch the
rockets was the exact same process. The igniter’s wires are connected to the battery which had a

switch on it. When the switch was turned on at the end of the countdown, the rocket launched

from the launchpad.

Angle 1 Angle 2 Angle 3 Angleavg Measured Height

Gold/Black (A) 26° 31° 25° 27.3° 27.3 meters

Gold/Black (C) 70° 80° 69° 73° 165.0 meters

Gold/Black (B) 64° 65° 44° 57.7° 80.5 meters

Red/Silver (B) 50° 66° 34° 50° 61.1 meters

Red/Silver (C) 69° 79° 55° 67.7° 123.2 meters

Red/Yellow (A) 48° 58° 41° 49° 59.0 meters

It was important to have three people measuring the angle of the rocket rather than just

one. Since a rocket’s flight path is rarely completely vertical, the three equidistant measurers

would account for that error. If it were only one person measuring, the perceived angle would be

slightly inaccurate depending on if the rocket curved toward them or away from them. Another

reason for three measurers is to simply minimize human error. Measuring the angle is not an
exact science and not easy to get precise data with. The difficulty of measuring the angle is due

to how heigh some of the rockets went. If a particular rocket only went up 30 meters or so it was

not that bad. However, for the rockets that went over 100 meters high, the measurers could have

easily lost sight of where they were.


Now that the measured heights had been obtained, they could be compared to the

predicted heights. The measured heights are as follows:

Angle 1 Angle 2 Angle 3 Angleavg Measured Height

Gold/Black (A) 26° 31° 25° 27.3° 27.3 meters

Gold/Black (C) 70° 80° 69° 73° 165.0 meters

Gold/Black (B) 64° 65° 44° 57.7° 80.5 meters

Red/Silver (B) 50° 66° 34° 50° 61.1 meters

Red/Silver (C) 69° 79° 55° 67.7° 123.2 meters

Red/Yellow (A) 48° 58° 41° 49° 59.0 meters

When you compare these measured heights with the predicted heights, you get the following


Measured Heights Predicted Heights Difference

Gold/Black (A) 27.3 meters 28.2 meters 0.9 meters

Gold/Black (C) 165.0 meters 176.7 meters 11.7 meters

Gold/Black (B) 80.5 meters 71.9 meters 8.6 meters

Red/Silver (B) 61.1 meters 67.9 meters 6.8 meters

Red/Silver (C) 123.2 meters 181.9 meters 58.7 meters

Red/Yellow (A) 59.0 meters 64.7 meters 5.7 meters

Obviously, all these are not as close as could be. Most of this is simply due to the

curvature of the rockets. The equations that the computer used in the spreadsheet operated on the

assumption that the rocket was flying straight up. And although this is ideal, it rarely ever

happens in real life. The curvature of the rockets also posed another problem being that the

angles were harder to measure if the rockets curved. It’s possible to counter this problem by

averaging three angles taken from three different positions. This will improve the measured

angle, but it will still not be perfect. There will always be human error in a project like this.

However, there was an alternate way to measure the height of the rockets, a more accurate way.

If an altimeter was used, then an exact number for the height of each rocket could be determined.

That wouldn’t have been cool though since we wouldn’t have to use physics or math for that.

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