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Catapult FAQ

If you are having trouble with this project, please read the FAQ below. You may find the answer to your question.

The Science Buddies catapult kit is used in four projects:

The FAQs below are used for all four projects. General catapult questions are at the top of the FAQs list and project specific questions are at the bottom of the list.

Q: The ball doesn't travel exactly the same distance each time, even when I use the exact same settings. What am I doing wrong?
A: This is OK! Due to many small, random effects beyond your control, like the catapult wiggling a bit between shots, or even air currents in the room, the ball will not travel exactly the same distance every time. In almost all "real world" experiments, you will not get the exact same results every single time.
Q: My catapult seems to move side-to-side slightly after each shot. How can I prevent this?
A: Depending on the surface material you are clamping to, the single clamp provided with the catapult kit may not hold the catapult perfectly still, especially when using two or three rubber bands. The catapult may wiggle a bit after each shot. This wiggle will may affect your left-to-right aim but will not have a significant effect on your distance or vertical trajectory. If you would like to eliminate the wiggle try stacking heavy objects, like textbooks, on top of the catapult base — just make sure they don't interfere with movement of the launch arm.
Q: How do I set the launch angle on the catapult?
A: The launch angle is set by inserting a metal pin through holes on the aluminum disk that align with the black metal base of the catapult. This picture shows the process:
Figure 4
Q: How do I attach the rubber bands to the catapult?
A: The rubber bands go through a hole in the circular aluminum disk, and hook onto pins on the launch arm. This picture shows the process in four steps:
Figure 5
Q: How do I measure the launch angle/pull-back angle?
A: The launch angle and pull-back angle are measured by tick marks on the side of the aluminum disk. When facing the writing on the side of the catapult, the launch angle tick marks will be on your right — they line up with the bottom edge of the base of the catapult (the black part that should be clamped to a table). The pull-back angle tick marks are on your left — they line up with the top edge of the launch arm. This picture shows how to read each angle:
Figure 6

Note: On older versions of the Xpult brand catapult, the pull-back angle may be read from the bottom edge of the launch arm. If you just ordered a new Science Buddies catapult kit for your project (as of October 2012), then you should follow the directions above.

Q: How can I stop the ball from bouncing out of the target in the Bombs Away! A Ping Pong Catapult project?
A: The ball is likely to bounce out of targets like metal pots or hard plastic trash cans, which can make chasing it all over the place annoying (especially if it rolls under furniture). Place a crumpled-up hand towel or t-shirt in the bottom of your target to reduce bouncing. Remember though - any shot that lands inside the target, even if it bounces out, still counts as a successful hit.
Q: I'm having trouble knocking over the box wall in the Under Siege! Use a Catapult to Storm Castle Walls project. What should I do?
A: First, make sure the box you are using for a castle wall isn't too big or heavy. We found that empty cereal boxes work well. A full cereal box will be much too heavy. Second, adjust your settings and aim — try using a different number of rubber bands, or switching your aim to a different part of the wall (top/bottom/middle). Remember, change one variable at a time and keep a good data table in order to figure out what is working!
Q: I'm having trouble filming the ball in Launch Time: The Physics of Catapult Projectile Motion project — it always looks blurry in each frame of my video. What can I do?
A: This is most likely due to poor lighting conditions. Many video cameras will automatically adjust their exposure time depending on the brightness of the scene. A poorly lit area will result in a longer exposure time, to let more light into the camera — however, this will also make fast-moving things appear blurry. If possible, try filming outside in direct sunlight (but not on a windy day!), or use extra lamps if filming indoors (remove lampshades to increase brightness).

Depending on your camera, you may also be able to manually adjust settings and decrease the exposure time. Consult your camera's manual to see if that is possible.

Q: My experimental results do not match up with my theoretical predictions in Launch Time: The Physics of Catapult Projectile Motion project. Am I doing something wrong?
A: If your theoretical and experimental results don't match up exactly, but are "reasonably" close to each other (for example, both show the ball going a couple meters before it hits the ground), then this is perfectly normal. There are parameters in both the theoretical predictions and the experiments that can vary slightly and affect your results. For example, the spring coefficient of your rubber bands could be slightly different than the number we provided, and if your catapult is not clamped down very well, the actual launch angle could be slightly different from the launch angle you set, as the catapult can "bounce" a bit during launch. All of these factors can contribute to make your experimental and theoretical results slightly different — but this is OK.

If your theoretical and experimental results are very different, there are a couple things you can check:

  • Are your theoretical predictions reasonable? You should be able to launch the ball across an average-sized room in your house — meaning it should go a couple meters before it hits the ground, for typical catapult settings. If your predictions indicate that the ball will travel several kilometers, or only a couple millimeters, then odds are you made a mathematical mistake. Double-check your calculations, and be extra careful to look for typos if you entered equations into a spreadsheet program.
  • Make sure you properly used a scale factor to convert the distances you measure on your computer screen to real-world distances for your experimental data. Again, make sure the distance the ball travels is reasonable — if your experimental data says that the ball traveled 100 meters, then you probably used the scale factor incorrectly.
Q: I can't get a nice histogram for the Bet You Can't Hit Me! The Science of Catapult Statistics project. What am I doing wrong?
A: The first thing you can do is try to adjust the bin size of your histogram — how you group and count the frequency of your data. A bin size that is too small or too large will make it difficult to see the true shape of the distribution. Here are four different histograms for the same set of data, all with different bin sizes:
FAQ Catapult histograms image

Notice how the shape of the distribution is evident with bin sizes of 5 or 10, but rather difficult to see with bin sizes of 1 or 20. As a general rule of thumb, more data will allow you to use a smaller bin size, which will give you a more accurate picture of the distribution — so if you have time, try to do more than 50 trials with the catapult.

Q: I'm having trouble accurately recording the distance the ball travels in the Bet You Can't Hit Me! The Science of Catapult Statistics project. What am I doing wrong?
A: First, it is essential to have two people for this part of the project — one to operate the Xpult, and another to record the distance the ball travels. You won't be able to do both by yourself.

For the person recording distances, we recommend watching where the ball lands and immediately marking the location with your finger. Then take a reading from the tape measure. Trying to watch where the ball lands and simultaneously read the tape measure will be very difficult.

Also, you probably won't be able to get fraction-of-an-inch accuracy on your readings — getting the closest one-inch increment will be good enough.