Introduction: Matchstick Rockets

Since ancient times, man has been facinated by fire, combustion and to reach for the stars. Newton’s Laws of motion are a cornerstone of basic physics (and a whole lot of fun to play with). One excellent way to study Newton’s 3rd Law is rocketry. This simple, low-cost experiment show the basics of action reaction physics and is the basis for combustion driven projectile motion.

Step 1: Safety Is Everything (part 1)

Step 2: Safety Is Everything (part 2)

Step 3: The Right Stuff (all You Need to Build a Rocket)

Step 4: Step-by-Step (video)

Step 5: Step-by-Step (text Transcript)


In the late 1600’s, Sir Isaac Newton’s developed his laws of motion, the 3rd of which states that for every action in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction. In the case of a rocket, the action of the rocket engine producing hot gases channeled through an exhaust system causes a reaction of the rocket being propelled in the opposite direction of the exhaust. (NASA, 2011)

Safety Tips:

• Here are a few tips to keep you safe while making your rocket.

• Use any information contained in this video as general knowledge, but please do not consider it as all-inclusive safety advice.

• Please note that this project should be performed or supervised by a competent adult.

• This experiment involves the use of fire and small projectiles. Matches and other fire related materials should only be used by a competent adult or under adult supervision.

• Eye protection should be worn when launching the matchstick rocket to prevent potential injury.

• The information provided here is both informative and more than sufficient to prevent injury, but please note that nothing in this video should be considered as a substitute for you taking responsibility for the well-being of the individuals doing or observing the project contained in this video.


Here is a list of the materials you will need to build your matchstick rocket.

1 book of paper matches

1 box of wooden matches

1 small paper clip

1 safety pin

Heavy-duty aluminum foil

Safety goggles

Fire resistant work surface

Safety Tips:

This experiment uses fire and heat to generate the forces required to launch the matchstick rocket. Perform the following steps outside in an area clear of dry grass, gasoline or other flammable materials. A great place to use is a large concrete surface like a driveway or basketball court.

Video Control:

Please watch each of the following instructions BEFORE attempting the step.

After each step is explained, you will have the opportunity to pause the video to complete the task. Click the video once to pause and then click the video again when you are ready to continue.


  1. The first step is to create a launching pad for our rocket. Bend a paperclip so that it looks like this. Spreading the base of the clip will ensure it stays upright after mounting the rocket.
  2. Make sure the pad is set up on a surface that will not be damaged by the rocket's exhaust such as a concrete driveway or sidewalk.
  3. Remove one paper match from the pack. Note the head of the match is coated with a variety of dried chemicals. When struck or heated, these chemicals burn rapidly creating heat and gases. This will be the “engine” of our rocket.
  4. Cut a small square of aluminum foil. It should be just big enough to cover the head of the match. This will minimize the weight of the rocket at lift off.
  5. Now, very tightly wrap the aluminum foil around the head of the match as shown. This forms the “housing” of our rocket to contain the gases generated during ignition.
  6. Carefully open the safety pin and slip the tip of the pin under the foil and push up to the head of the match. Run your thumbnail along the edge of the pin to make a small tube in the foil. This tube is the exhaust channel and will direct the engine gases in one direction and force our rocket to travel in the opposite direction as we saw in Newton’s Third Law of motion.
  7. Position the matchstick rocket on our launch pad.


  1. Be sure the match rocket is pointed away from people or burnable materials. It is recommended to have water or some other fire extinguisher available. The foil head of the rocket will be very hot!
  2. Making sure the area is clear of obstacles and objects that might catch fire, strike one of the wooden matches and carefully ignite the rocket by holding this second match under the foil until the ignition combustion temperature is reached.
  3. The chemical coating on our matchstick rocket engine will ignite, rapidly changing to heat and gas. The gas is contained in the aluminum foil housing and forced through exhaust channel. The resulting force of the expanding gas propels the rocket off the launch pad and through the air.


  1. Remember, your matchstick rocket demonstrates Isaac Newton's third law of motion, which states that for every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction.
  2. When the match burns in an enclosed environment, the aluminum foil becomes a rocket combustion chamber. Pressure builds up in the chamber until is forced through the exhaust channel as a rapid stream of smoke and gas.
  3. As we have seen, the exhaust generates the action and the rocket being propelled in the opposite direction is the reaction.

Other Ideas:

As your try this experiment on your own, see what happens if you change the diameter of the exhaust channel. Will a larger diameter make the rocket go faster or slower? Does the angle of the launch pad affect how far the rocket travels?

Most of all be safe and have fun!

Step 6: Citations

(n.d.). Portrait of Isaac Newton. Retrieved from Isaac Newton Institute for Mathematical Sciences website:

(2001, March 10). Thor rocket carries courier communications satellite into space (1961). Retrieved from The Internet Archive website:

(2010, September 20). Richard Mayer’s multimedia learning theory. Retrieved from Representation & Interaction Design: Journal website:

(2011, June 20). Newton's 3rd law: Rocket engine thrust. Retrieved from NASA Glenn website:

O'Connor, D. (2011, June 20). Rocketry. Retrieved from Dano Songs website:

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