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Study Bottle Rocket Performance with Electronic Sensors

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Areas of Science
Time Required
Short (2-5 days)
Sabine De Brabandere, PhD, Science Buddies
*Note: For this science project you will need to develop your own experimental procedure. Use the information in the summary tab as a starting place. If you would like to discuss your ideas or need help troubleshooting, use the Ask An Expert forum. Our Experts won't do the work for you, but they will make suggestions and offer guidance if you come to them with specific questions.

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Rocket design and operation is a fascinating field and analyzing the flight path provides insight into the rocket's performance. In this project, you will take measurements of the flight path to evaluate how a change in the rocket design or launch procedure impacts the rocket's performance.

Initially, while the bottle rocket expels water (or the rocket expels exhaust), the rocket gets a boost. This push is referred to as thrust and projects the rocket forward. Earth's gravity pulls the rocket down, and air resistance or drag works against the movement of the rocket. The typical path of a bottle rocket consists of an initial boost after which the rocket coasts to its highest point (the apogee). It ends with a steady descent. As you change the rocket or the launch procedure, think about which forces that act on the rocket (thrust, gravity, and drag) change, and how these changes will influence the path the rocket takes.

Some items you can consider changing are:

Electronic sensors, like an accelerometer (which measures acceleration) or an altimeter (which measures the rocket's altitude by measuring barometric pressure) provide measurements about the flight path. Some sensors may continuously log data throughout the entire flight, producing detailed information of how altitude, speed, and acceleration change over time. Other sensors record certain values that characterize a flight. Below are a few parameters that might be provided by a sensor, and what they mean.

 Illustration of how the height of a rocket changes over time.  Image Credit: Sabine De Brabandere, Science Buddies / Science Buddies

If you start the time period at 0, the rocket will climb rapidly during the boost, or the period where the rocket accelerates. The rocket rises steadily as it coasts to the apogee and has a steady decline as it descends to height 0. The period between reaching the apogee and the touchdown is called the recovery period.

Figure 1. A typical height versus time diagram of a rocket launch

The AltimeterTwo from Jolly Logic is an example of a sensor that records a list of rocket path parameters. It provides easy access to a few essential parameters that describe a rocket's performance. Choose one or a few of these parameters to analyze.

 A picture of the ALTIMETERTWO displaying flight information on a small screen, Image Credit: Jolly Locig / Jolly Logic
Figure 2. The Jolly Logic Altimeter Two. Photo courtesy of Jolly Logic. This altimeter is about 4.9 cm by 1.8 cm by 1.45 cm and has a mass of 9.9 g.

If your meter provides graphs of altitude vs. time as shown in Figure 3, do some research about how these display the maximum altitude, the boost period, the maximum acceleration, etc. Then, choose one or a few of these parameters to analyze.

An example of altimeter software displaying continuous elevation data.Image Credit: Ben Finio, Science Buddies / Science Buddies
Figure 3. A display of recorded flight data from the Jolly Logic Altimeter Three software. Photo courtesy of Jolly Logic.

To understand the measured acceleration, it is good to know Newton's second law of motion, which states that if the same force is applied to a heavier rocket, the rocket will accelerate less. Or, keeping the mass of the rocket (and thus also the water level in the bottle rocket at launch) unchanged, one can use the average acceleration during boost as a measure of the force created by the thrust, gravity, and drag combined during boost.

When using an electronic sensor on a rocket, remember to attach it well. These sensors are small and hard to find when they detach during flight. Most of these sensors are not water-resistant. Be sure to pack it in plastic wrap to protect it from moisture or water spills. Because an altimeter measures air pressure to determine elevation changes, it will not give accurate readings if you pack it in an airtight container or bag.

Note that bottle rockets can be used to test parachutes, but because they do not use an ejection system to release the parachute, the ejection time or altitude at ejection (two parameters that might be provided by a sensor) will not be correct. However, you can study how the duration of the descent, or average speed of the descent changes when using a parachute.

To eliminate the influence that weather conditions can have on your results, try to record data under similar weather conditions. You can also choose to study the influence that weather conditions have on rocket performance.

Remember, you can either use the scientific method—changing one variable at a time and studying its influence on the flight path—or the engineering design method, where you aim to design a rocket that fulfills preset criteria.


icon scientific method

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Global Connections

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UNSDGs) are a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

If you are having trouble with this project, please read the FAQ below. You may find the answer to your question.
Q: If your rocket launches prematurely (e.g. while you are using the bike pump to add air):
  1. Check if you placed your bottle rocket properly on the launcher. For example, if you are using the AquaPod bottle rocket launcher, make sure to push the bottle down so it goes over the thin black ring, then pull the bottle back up as far as you can. The launch release latch should hold it in place. The pictures can help you identify if the bottle is pushed down far enough and ensure the release latch is holding the bottle securely in place.
  2. Check to make sure your bottle fits snugly on your launch tube. When your rocket is loaded with some water and placed on the launch tube, some water might trickle out. If water continues to stream out, see if rubbing some petroleum jelly on the launch tube or just inside the bottle mouth solves the issue. If the mouth of your bottle is too wide, you might have to buy a new bottle.
Q: If your rocket stays stuck on the launcher:
  1. Ask an adult to remove the bottle from the launcher, as it can be very dangerous since the bottle is under a lot of pressure. Follow the instructions from the bottle rocket launcher manual, or if you have made your own, look up how to safely remove the bottle.
  2. Rub some petroleum jelly in the bottle mouth or on your launch tube.
  3. Check if your bottle rocket fits on the launcher. The answer to the question "If your rocket launches prematurely" can help you identify problems.
  4. Ensure your bottle fits snugly, but not extremely tightly, around the launch tube. If the mouth of your bottle is too tight, you might have to buy a new bottle.
  5. The launch latch or launch release system should be able to grab the bottle as soon as some pressure is added to the bottle rocket. You can test this by putting an empty bottle rocket on the launch tube, pushing it completely down, and then pulling it back up. The bottle should come up a tiny bit, until the release system stops it.


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Cite This Page

General citation information is provided here. Be sure to check the formatting, including capitalization, for the method you are using and update your citation, as needed.

MLA Style

De Brabandere, Sabine. "Study Bottle Rocket Performance with Electronic Sensors." Science Buddies, 16 Oct. 2020, https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Aero_p055/aerodynamics-hydrodynamics/bottle-rocket-sensors. Accessed 21 Apr. 2024.

APA Style

De Brabandere, S. (2020, October 16). Study Bottle Rocket Performance with Electronic Sensors. Retrieved from https://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project-ideas/Aero_p055/aerodynamics-hydrodynamics/bottle-rocket-sensors

Last edit date: 2020-10-16
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