Overview

Students will construct rockets made from pipe insulating foam and use them to investigate the trajectory relationship between launch angle and range in a controlled investigation.

Management

• Watch the "DIY Space: Build a Foam Rocket" video tutorial at the top of the page for instructions on building the rocket and conducting the activity.

• Select a large room with a high ceiling for the launch range, such as a cafeteria or gymnasium. Place markers on the floor at 1 meter intervals starting at 5 meters and going to 20 meters. If it is a calm day, the investigation can be conducted outside. Although the rockets can be launched outside on windy days, the wind becomes an uncontrolled variable that may invalidate the results. Prepare some sample rocket fins to show how they are constructed. See procedures for details.

• Before conducting the investigation, review the concept of control. In this investigation, control will be how much the rubber band is stretched when launching the rockets. The experimental variable will be the angle of launch. Students will compare the launch angle with the distance the rocket travels.

• Organize students into teams of three. One student is the launcher. The second student confirms the launch angle and gives the launch command. The third student measures the launch distance, records it, and returns the rocket to the launch site for the next flight. The experiment is repeated twice more with students switching roles. The distances flown will be averaged. Teams will try different angles and determine what the best launch angle should be to obtain the greatest distance from the launch site.

Background

The foam rocket flies ballistically. It receives its entire thrust from the force produced by the elastic rubber band. The rubber band is stretched. When the rocket is released, the rubber band quickly returns to its original length, launching the foam rocket in the process. Technically, the foam rocket is a rocket in appearance only. The thrust of real rockets typically continues for several seconds or minutes, causing continuous acceleration, until propellants are exhausted. The foam rocket gets a quick pull and then coasts. Furthermore, the mass of the foam rocket doesn’t change in flight. Real rockets consume propellants and their total mass diminishes. Nevertheless,the flight of a foam rocket is similar to that of real rockets. Its motion and course is affected by gravity and by drag or friction with the atmosphere. The ability to fly foam rockets repeatedly (without refueling) makes them ideal for classroom investigations on rocket motion.

The launch of a foam rocket is a good demonstration of Newton’s third law of motion. The contraction of the rubber band produces an action force that propels the rocket forward while exerting an opposite and equal force on the launcher. In this activity, the launcher is a meter stick held by the student.

In flight, foam rockets are stabilized by their fins. The fins, like feathers on an arrow, keep the rocket pointed in the desired direction. If launched straight up, the foam rocket will climb until its momentum is overcome by gravity and air drag. At the very top of the flight the rocket momentarily becomes unstable. It flops over as the fins catch air. The rocket becomes stable again when it falls back to the ground.

When the foam rocket is launched at an angle of less than 90 degrees, its path is an arc whose shape is determined by the launch angle. For high launch angles, the arc is steep, and for low angles, it is broad.

When launching a ballistic rocket straight up (neglecting air currents) the rocket will fall straight back to its launch site when its upward motion stops. If the rocket is launched at an angle of less than 90 degrees, it will land at some distance from the launch site. How far away from the launch site is dependent on four things. These are:

• gravity

• launch angle

• initial velocity

• atmospheric drag

Gravity causes the foam rocket to decelerate as it climbs upward and then causes it to accelerate as it falls back to the ground. The launch angle works with gravity to shape the flight path. Initial velocity and drag affects the flight time.

In the investigation, students will compare the launch angle to the range or distance the foam rocket lands from the launch site. Launch angle is the independent variable. Gravity can be ignored because the acceleration of gravity will remain the same for all flight tests. Atmospheric drag can also be ignored because the same rocket will be flown repeatedly. Although students will not know the initial velocity, they will control for it by stretching the rubber band the same amount for each flight. The dependent variable in the experiment is the distance the rocket travels.

Assuming student teams are careful in their control of launch angles and in the stretching of the launch band, they will observe that their farthest flights will come from launches with an angle of 45 degrees. They will also observe that launches of 30 degrees, for example, will produce the same range as launches of 60 degrees. Twenty degrees will produce the same result as 70 degrees, etc. (Note: Range distances will not be exact because of slight differences in launching even when teams are very careful to be consistent. However, repeated launches can be averaged so that the ranges more closely agree with the illustration

Procedures

Constructing a Foam Rocket

1. Using scissors, cut one 30-cm length of pipe foam for each team.

2. Cut four equally spaced slits at one end of the tube. The slits should be about 12 cm long. The fins will be mounted through these slits.

3. Cut a 12 cm length of duct tape down the middle to make two pieces. Place one piece over the other, sticky to shiny side, to make the tape double-strong.

4. Slip a rubber band over the tape and press the tape around the nose end of the rocket (opposite the end with the slits). Press the tape tightly and reinforce it with another length of tape wrapped around the tube.

5. Cut fin pairs from the foam food tray or stiff cardboard. Refer to the fin diagram. Both fin pairs should be notched so that they can be slid together as shown in the diagram. Different fin shapes can be used, but they should still “nest” together.

6. Slide the nested fins into the slits cut in the rear end of the rocket. Close off the slits with a piece of duct tape wrapped around the foam tube. The rocket is finished.

Making the Launcher

1. Print the quadrant pattern on card stock paper.

2. Cut out the pattern and fold it on the dashed line.

3. Tape the quadrant to the meter stick so that the black dot lies directly over the 60 cm mark on the stick.

4. Press a push tack into the black dot.

5. Tie a string to the push tack and hang a small weight, such as a nut or a washer, on the string. The weight should swing freely.

6. Refer to the diagram to see how the launcher is used.

Discussion

• Why didn’t the experiment protocol call for launching at 0 and 90 degrees?
Assuming a perfect launch, a rocket launchedstraight upwards should return to the launch pad. Any variation in the impact site will be due to air currents and not to the launch angle. A rocket launched horizontally will travel only as long as the time it takes to drop to the floor.

• Shouldn’t the rocket be launched from the floor for the experiment?
Yes. However, it is awkward to do so. Furthermore, student teams will be measuring the total distance the rocket travels, and consistently launching from above the floor will not significantly affect the outcome.

Assessment

• Have student teams submit their completed data sheets with conclusions.

• Have students write about potential practical uses for the foam rocket (e.g., delivering messages).

Extensions

• For advanced students, the following equation can be used for estimating range assuming level ground and no air resistance. (g is the acceleration of gravity on Earth) Students will have to determine initial velocity. If available, an electronic photogate (science lab probeware) with timer can be used for determining the initial velocity. Otherwise, challenge students to devise a method for estimating initial velocity. One approach might be to launch the rocket horizontally from a tabletop and measure the horizontal distance the rocket travels as it falls to the floor. Using a stopwatch, measure the time the rocket takes to reach the floor. If the rocket takes 0.25 seconds to reach the floor and traveled 3 meters horizontally while doing so, multiply 3 meters by 4. The initial velocity will be 12 meters per second. Students should repeat the measurement several times and average the data to improve their accuracy. (This method assumes no slowing of the rocket in flight due to air drag.)

• Different kinds of fins can be constructed for the foam rocket. Try creating a space shuttle orbiter or a future rocket plane for exploring the atmosphere of other planets.