Computational Deployment: Simulating A Rocket

The model rocket project has long been a favorite at the Academy. For the past fifteen years, students have designed, fabricated and then launched model rockets as the first project of the program. Over the years, I have tweaked the project several times, each time finding new ways to introduce authentic analysis in the process.

This year I have taken a deep dive into computational modeling, and as part of the rocket project, students were asked to create a simulation of their rocket prior to launch. In this post I will discuss how I did this, and how it turned out.

Simulating The Momentum Principle:

Prior to getting started on this, students investigated the causal relationship between forces and changes in motion. Using force sensors, carts, weights and elastic cords of different lengths, students began building a qualitative and quantitative model relating the momentum of a particle to the forces acting on the particle.

In previous years, I waited to introduce momentum until after a significant amount of time was spent on forces, balanced and unbalanced. This year I decided to go directly to momentum. This is a bit of a break from the established modeling instruction sequence, but I think its a good alternative that is also suggested by the great textbook Matter and Interactions. The momentum principle can easily be modeled computationally and I think the students are able to grasp it conceptually.

I have included a link to a Google Doc that is the introductory activity that I created. My approach here, as it has been with this entire unit is to give the students guided questions that allow the students to discover and investigate the code required to simulate the momentum principle. This is my first attempt, and I am sure it will undergo many revisions:

Simulating The Momentum Principle

Introducing Conditional Behavior

One of the really great things about building a simulation of a rocket has three distinct phases of its trajectory – the thrust phase, the cruise phase and the descent phase. This gives the students three different phenomena to study and simulate: positive acceleration when two unbalanced forces are acting on the rocket during the thrust phase, free fall when the fuel runs out, and then constant velocity when the parachute has been deployed.

In order to simulate this, students needed a way to change the forces acting on the rocket at different time intervals. This is done using a conditional statement:

If This Then That

Conditional statements are very easy to create in Tychos – but they work a bit differently from other programming interfaces. Here is an example:

```# The thrust force - F (thrust, rocket, fuel)
Ftrf = if (t < 1.8, [0, 6], [0, 0])```

In this code snippet, a force is given a different value based on a condition, in this case whether the time in the simulation is less than 1.8 seconds. If it is, then the force is given a positive 6 value in the Y direction, and if the time is greater than 1.8 seconds, then the force becomes zero.

This allows the students to simulate the thrust phase of the rocket by having the thrust force disappear once the fuel has run out. We conducted tests on Estes C6-5 rocket engines in order to establish the time value. You can read more about how we did this here.

The students did the same thing to figure out when the parachute should deploy. Again this was established based on information from Estes as well as our own tests.

Comparing Simulation Data to Real Data

The students could analyze the simulated rocket behavior by using the graphing tools in Tychos. The students graphed the vertical velocity as well as the vertical position of their simulated rockets. Here is an example of what those graphs look like:

The last step of the process was for the students to compare their simulated data to the real data that was captured by the altimeter that we use in the rocket’s payload. Below are two images of the graphs of the data they retrieved from the rocket’s altimeter:

velocity data from altimeter – imported into LoggerPro

altitude data from altimeter – imported into LoggerPro

The shapes of the graphs from the simulated data and the real data are very similar! That was certainly exciting to see that the simulations were at least giving results that qualitatively matched the real behavior of the rockets.

Two factors that certainly created significant discrepancies between the real rockets and the simulated rockets was the existence of air resistance on the real rocket, and the fact that the real rockets didn’t always go perfectly straight up! We plan on modifying the simulations, but that will have to wait for a future post.

We Have Lift Off!

This is a follow up post to Modeling A Rocket’s Journey – A Synthesis where I described how the students in the first year program were engaged in creating a predictive report for their model rockets. I want to emphasize that these model rockets were not kits. Each rocket was designed using 3D CAD software, and each component was either fabricated from raw material, or was created from material that was not intended for use in model rocketry. The only exception to this is the actual rocket motor.

The next step was to launch the rockets and have the altimeter payload collect altitude data.

Launch Conditions – A Bit Soggy

Unfortunately the week of our scheduled launch happened to be a week of some pretty hefty rains. We rescheduled the launch twice before finally accepting the soggy launch conditions. With umbrellas and rain jackets, we trudged out to the baseball diamond and got to work setting up for the launch. We had some minor difficulties in the wet weather, but eventually had a very successful launch day.

Most of the rockets were able to launch and deploy their valuable payload – the Pnut Altimeter.

The students seemed very excited to finally see the rockets launch, and to see the successful deployment of the parachutes. Although we all got a little wet and muddy, we had a great time!

The Altimeter Data

The altimeters use a small barometric pressure sensor to collect altitude data (the altimeters also contain a small temperature sensor and voltage sensor). The altitude is recorded in feet every .05 seconds. Here is an example of one rocket’s recorded flight data:

https://plot.ly/~stemples/9

The students were then asked to use the data to create a comparative analysis report. I will detail how the assignment was set up and also discuss how the students performed on this assignment. That will be for another post.

I want to also thank Mr. Kainz for his amazing photos that are displayed here.

A Synthesis Of All The Models (Thus Far)

In this post I will describe a culminating activity for the first year students in the Academy. This is really the destination that the students have been headed towards since the beginning of the course. Everything they have learned is synthesized in this activity where the students gather data from various observations/experiments and then use the data to predict their own model rocket’s journey.

Note: There were two significant simplifications that we had to make based on the ability level of the students and the physics content covered in class. We had to assume that there was no air resistance force acting on the rocket during the thrust and cruise phases. We also assumed that the mass of the rocket did not change. I intend to have the students reflect on how this might affect the predictions and then analyze the actual performance data. More on this later…

Measuring The Rocket Engine Thrust

We first needed to figure out the average force exerted by the rocket motor on the rockets and the time interval during which that force would be applied. This would give the students both the thrust force and the length of time of the thrust phase. We needed to collect force measurements for the rocket motors that we were using (C6-5). You can actually download this from many different websites, but it was much more fun to actually do it ourselves! Mr. Holt made a neat little rocket motor holder that was attached to a force meter and we went out into the rain to test the motor (see video below – thank’s Gary!):

The force data was then shared out to the students – here is what the graph looked like:

And this is the force vs time graph one retailer posted on their website:

Although the students had not been introduced to the concept of Impulse-Momentum transfer, we can use the average force, and that seems to work out really well. Just to make sure we could do this, I used the Integral tool in LoggerPro to measure the impulse, and it came out to 8.83 N s – really close to what Estes states – 8.8 N s.

A Mini Wind Tunnel Test

The students then needed to measure the drag force on their parachutes (all cut on our new laser cutter) as a function of air speed so that they could estimate the terminal velocity of their rocket during the descent phase.  Next step was to test the parachutes. Luckily, Mr. Holt and I had helped two of our previous students create a really nice wind tunnel. We used a force meter attached to a vertical post inside the tunnel…

…and then we used a little Kestrel anemometer to measure the air speed…

Students were able to increase the air speed in the tunnel by turning a rheostat that controlled the fan speed. They then measured the wind velocity and graphed that against the measured force – just like NASA!

Here is some sample data to show how the results came out – not bad!

Students now had a way to estimate the descent velocity because they could calculate the gravitational force on their rocket, using the measured mass of their rockets, and then they could use their data to find the corresponding wind speed.

Putting It All Together

As part of their final (50%), the students were asked to then take this data, measure the mass of their model rocket and construct a prediction. The prediction was to include these five elements:

1. A set of force diagrams for the different phases – thrust, cruise, and descent. The diagrams also had to include accompanying net force equations.
2. An acceleration vs time graph.
3. A velocity vs time graph.
4. A position vs time graph.
5. Finally a calculation sheet that includes all calculations required to create the motion graphs.

The students have been asked to turn this in before the actual launch.

As we collected the data above, I never explicitly reveal how the data should be used to make these predictions, but I do give them some guiding questions that orients them. They work with their partner’s on this report, but I warn them that they will both be held responsible for understanding the process of creating the prediction report.

Testing the Predictions

Each student rocket will be equipped with a small altimeter (from Apogee Rocketry – love this thing!).

This altimeter records altitude data in 1/10 of a second intervals, and we have found it to be very accurate and reliable. We will be launching next week, so tune in soon for an exciting update on how the launches went!