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Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D.

Be a Rocket Scientist Today - Build Your Own Rockets

By October 26, 2009

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Solid Rocket Diagram (Redline)


NASA is testing a new rocket; you can make rockets too. Rockets are extremely easy to construct. Basically all you need is some form of propellent, which is expelled through a nozzle to move your rocket. Sounds simple, right? We'll see. The first stage of NASA's Ares rocket uses a solid fuel, so here are projects for you to try that use solid fuel, too.

Match Stick Rocket

If you have a wooden or paper match and a piece of aluminum foil, you have all the materials necessary to make a match stick rocket. The burning match gives off hot gases, which you compress by wrapping the match head with foil. A small opening along the match stick (which you can achieve by wrapping a paperclip or pin with the match and then removing it) channels the energy and propels the rocket. The ignition comes from heating the foil-wrapped match with the flame from a lighter or a lit match.

Sugar and Potassium Nitrate Rocket

Another solid fuel rocket you can make uses the classic smoke bomb mixture of potassium nitrate (saltpeter) and sugar. To make a large solid fuel rocket, you can follow my instructions for a smoke bomb fountain, which is essentially a smoke bomb in a cardboard tube, except you want to seal one end of the tube (e.g., with foil). You can refine this rocket by choosing a different casing and nozzle design. The foil and toilet paper tube rocket launches (in the desired direction, which is always nice), but I can tell you from experience that it presents a fire risk to your yard.

Other Solid Fuels for Rockets

The solid fuel used by the Ares rocket is polybutadiene acrylonitrile (PBAN), which is polymer or plastic that is readily and cheaply available for amateur rocketry. Another option for making a solid rocket is to use gunpowder, such as for a bottle rocket. The big disadvantage of gunpowder is that it is unstable and can explode. If you're building a solid fuel rocket for the first time definitely stick with a stable compound, such as the match stick head or smoke bomb mixture. If you'd like to share your experiences with these rocket projects or suggest other solid rocket fuels, be sure to post a reply.

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