This Instructable also outlines how to make a high-performing rocket, which is just as important as having a great launcher. The students in my engineering class have made rockets that can fly over 100 yards from this launcher - it's rather mind-blowing to witness.
The video doesn't quite capture the sheer distance that these rockets can reach, but I think you'll get the jist of it.
Step 2: Make the rocket
It's easy to build a rocket that can reach a distance of 50 feet. However, making an ultra-high-performing rocket is actually quite challenging because all aspects need to be designed to near perfection. At high speeds, tiny imperfections are quickly blown out of proportion because the forces acting upon the rocket are intensified. For example, a nosecone that leans slightly to one side may not significantly influence the rocket's performance at 40psi, however at 60psi that nosecone may create an imbalance of friction created by the air rushing by, causing the rocket to turn sharply and tumble to the ground.
For this reason, take your time while creating & attaching each part of the rocket. And with that in mind, here's how to make a high-performing rocket:
Step 3: The lesson (for teachers)
- Fundamental concepts in aerodynamics such as stability, drag, and propulsion are experientially explored and applied as students build and test their rockets. The comprehension of these concepts is further strengthened as students redesign and retest their rockets while observing the differences in performance.
- Students will acknowledge the value of teamwork as they work in pairs to design and build their rocket. Students who choose to work individually will quickly observe the value of teamwork during certain steps.
- Basic rocket anatomy vocabulary (fuselage, fins, and nosecone) will be understood and utilized during the teacher's lecture and during rocket construction.
- Fine motor skills are developed during rocket construction.
- Optional: students will experientially comprehend the values of different materials as they apply their material choices to their rocket design, as well as by observing the performance of different material combinations.
I usually start by explaining how the launcher works because it catches the students' attention right away. I just explain the basics: the chamber is filled with air, creating high air pressure, and when the button is pressed, the air is allowed to escape through the launch tube, which provides propulsion to the rockets. For a more technical understanding, view the video at the bottom of this page (credit to the YouTube user Hubb017).
Next I show the class how to build a rocket from start to finish. I usually work a little fast and imprecisely since I'm just outlining the steps, so be sure to encourage them to take their time and build with precision. As I build the rocket I explain the important aspects of each part:
- The fuselage must fit the 1/2" PVC perfectly. If it is too tight, it will not fit, or it will explode upon launch. If it's too loose, propulsion (pressurized air) will escape out from the bottom of the rocket. The fuselage should slide onto the launch tube with little wiggle room.
- The fins provide stability for the rocket - this is enough explanation for younger students. Older students may benefit from knowing this: when a rocket is pushed off course by a gust of wind, the angle of attack (direction the air is moving) relative to the fins changes, which causes the fins to generate a small amount of lift. The lift immediately forces the rocket to return to it's original trajectory, which also restores the angle of attack to 0, thus stabilizing the rocket. If the fins are too large or not straight, it may generate too much lift and cause the rocket to turn during flight. If a rocket begins to turn because of the fins, the center of pressure (the point at which all forces are acting upon the rocket, including momentum and lift) surpasses the center of gravity, meaning the rocket will try to turn around, causing it to tumble out of control. Basically, make your fins precisely and tape them on straight!
- The nosecone reduces drag (air pushing against all sides of the rocket) by offering minimum aerodynamic resistance. In other words, the nosecone helps the rocket 'push' its way through the air without allowing the air to push back against the tip of the rocket, instead flowing smoothly around it. Demonstrate how to build the nosecone a few times since it can be challenging. The nosecone can be difficult for young students to build, so an alternative (though less effective) design is to simply pinch the end of the rocket and close it with tape. Be sure to tell the students to secure their nosecone extremely well because the air pressure can blow the cone off of the rocket.
- Inspect each part of the rocket for straightness and secure placement.
Remember, the objective is to allow students to explore and comprehend aerospace ideas experientially, so allow them to experiment with different rocket lengths, nosecone and fin shapes, number of fins, etc. It's ok if students cannot give you a textbook definition of ideas like drag and trajectory at the end of class. As long as they are engaged with the activity, they will learn these things effortlessly.
You can offer a myriad of materials for the students to explore and build with, which adds a new dimension to the project. Experimenting with different materials can add longevity to the lesson.
Video of how a sprinkler valve works
Step 4: Safety, tips, and troubleshooting
- Never allow students to use the launcher unsupervised. Disable the launcher by removing the battery (or pump or launch tube) if you have to leave the launcher unsupervised.
- Never allow anyone to put their face near the launch tube. Air expelled from the tube, if forced into someone's nose or mouth, is powerful enough to cause the lungs to rupture. This is very serious. Tell your students about this and they will be frightened enough to never get near the tip of the launch tube.
- Never stand directly in front of the launcher, even if a rocket is not loaded. At point blank, a rocket shot from the launcher can cause serious injury.
- The student holding the button should keep his/her trigger finger off of the button until the final countdown is initiated. The button is sensitive and can easily misfire.
- Use a bright rope to define a safety zone that the students may never cross, even while loading their rocket.
- Have a countdown before each launch as a way to alert people in the area (and to make each launch more exciting!)
- Fins that are not attached straight, or the leading tip of the fin is not secured, will cause the rocket to tumble at high speeds.
- Fins that are too big create too much lift and/or drag.
- Fins that are too small may not provide enough stability.
- Fins that extend too far from the fuselage are prone to wobbling in the wind, causing instability.
- Nosecones that are not secured well enough will explode off of the rocket.
- Rockets tend to explode at pressures above 60psi. If you choose to mod the button with a second 9V battery, have the students tape up every seam many times over.
- Inspect the rocket before each flight and use your hands to straighten out the fins and nosecone, which will inevitably become bent over time.
- I usually refrain from interfering with students' designs, however if a student has created a poorly built fuselage I will step in and help them. Making a new fuselage after attaching everything else can be a hassle.
- Young students (grades 3 and below) may have a hard time rolling a tube of cardstock, so I usually do that step as part of my prep.
- If you don't have access to a huge open space, you can set up targets like stacked cardboard boxes and aim for those. Be extra cautious here.
- When storing the launcher, remove the 9V battery, or at least make sure the button is uncompressed or else the battery will quickly drain.
Step 5: Materials list
Tools for the air pressure chamber:
PVC cutting tool
Materials for the air pressure chamber:
PVC Solvent weld (aka PVC cement)
KwikPlastic (or similar)
6" sections of 2-inch PVC (x2)
2" slip fit end cap (x2)
2" slip fit T-joint
2" to 1" slip fit reducer
2" section of one-inch PVC
1" threaded male adapter (x2)
1" to 1/2" slip fit reducer
24" piece of 1/2-inch PVC with tapered end (x1)
Modified valve and replacement launch handle from ItsaBlast.com
Bicycle pump with PSI gauge
For the base:
12" cable ties
PVC elbow joints (x2)
12" piece of PVC with two holes drilled about 4" apart (x2)
8" piece of PVC
The total cost is about $70, excluding all tools and solvent weld. In my line of work, it is well worth the initial investment because the paper rocket activity is very cheap, less than $0.15 per student.
For paper rockets: