In this article, we’re going to learn how to build a simple “matchstick rocket” right at home!
If you already know how rockets work, you can skip the next two paragraphs and get right to the project. Otherwise, read on to learn the basic principles behind the rockets we’ll build.
To begin with, a rocket is a craft powered by thrust generated by the expulsion of matter. A rocket differs from a propeller-driven airplane in that it is powered, not by a propeller pulling it through the air, but by the ejection of spent fuel. It is also different than an object launched from a catapult. Whereas a catapult sends an object flying by means of a single impetus, a rocket achieves flight by constant thrust.
Normally, rockets burn some sort of fuel in order to generate the necessary thrust. Solid fuels were normally used until Dr. Robert Goddard and Dr. Wernher von Braun popularized using liquid fuels. Today, most model rockets still use solid fuel, which is what our rocket experiment will use.
And now, on to the project!
Making Matchstick Rockets
First, please note that this project should only be done with close adult supervision, and you should only fire your rockets out of doors in a safe place. We’re essentially playing with matches here, and all the usual warnings apply. Unless proper care is taken, you could shoot your eye out, burn yourself, set fire to the house or shrubbery, frighten your cat, etc. Matchstick rockets are perfectly safe when used carefully, so please, make sure responsible adults are around to oversee this project and make sure everybody has a fun learning experience.
To make matchstick rockets, you’ll need the following supplies:
- Paper matches
- Aluminum foil
- 1 paper clip
- Straight pin or needle
- Long-handled butane lighter
- Safety glasses
Start by tearing off a piece of aluminum foil about an inch long and three-quarters of an inch wide. Lay a match on top of the aluminum foil, with the tip of the match about an 1/8 of an inch away from the edge of the foil. Then, take a pin or needle and lay it on top of the match as shown in Figure 1. (Please note that I used a straightened paper clip for this step so it would show better in the pictures, but a pin will give better results.) Make sure the point of the pin is even with the very end of the match tip.
Now, begin wrapping the aluminum foil around the match and the pin. Wrap it as tightly and neatly as possible. When you’re finished, fold over the aluminum foil at the tip of the match to make sure everything is airtight, as shown in Figure 2.
Carefully pull the pin out of the aluminum foil. This will leave a thin, round channel up to the match head. Your first matchstick rocket is now complete. Lay it aside for now, being very careful not to damage the aluminum foil channel.
Now you can make the rocket launcher. For the sake of safety, our rocket launcher will be designed to launch the rocket at an angle, rather than straight up. To make your launcher, take a paper clip and bend out the interior loop to an angle of about 45 degrees. Then, bend the end of the exterior loop out away from the rest of the clip so it will stand up more stably (Figure 3).
You’re now ready to launch your rocket! Go outside on a calm day and find a safe place away from buildings, shrubs, dry grass, etc. A large concrete driveway would be perfect. Place your rocket launcher on a flat surface, then place your matchstick rocket in the launcher as shown in Figure 4. The end of the match that is wrapped in aluminum foil should be pointed up, and cradled in the curve of the paper clip launcher. The other end of the match should rest on the ground, resting against the back of the launcher.
Make sure everyone present is wearing safety glasses, then point the rocket in a safe direction. Double check to make sure everybody is out of the way and that it’s safe to fire your rocket. Now, using the long-handled butane lighter, point a flame against the foil-covered tip of the match. After a few seconds, the rocket will suddenly fly off under its own power!
Can you guess what is happening here? When you use the lighter to apply heat to the covered match head, it eventually bursts into flame. But, the aluminum foil prevents the resulting combustion gases from escaping, except through the channel made by the pin when you wrapped the foil. This channel effectually becomes the exhaust outlet, which, by concentrating the force of the combustion in one direction, provides the thrust necessary to propel your rocket!
Be very careful picking up fired matchstick rockets, as they will be very hot for a few minutes!
After firing a few rockets, examine them carefully. If your fired rockets have holes burned in the aluminum foil, it probably didn’t go very far since the exhaust was able to escape in directions other than through the exhaust channel. To fix this problem, try using a few more layers of foil.
On the other hand, if your rockets didn’t go very far but don’t have holes burned in the foil, the foil is probably too thick. Try reducing the amount of foil used, to cut down on overall weight.
Many people have made matchstick rockets something of a hobby, striving to send their little rockets flying as far as possible. Ten feet is considered quite good, and there are reports of rockets flying over thirty feet. One gentleman even claims to have fired a matchstick rocket nearly forty-five feet!
If you’re interested in making your matchstick rockets fly farther, there are several experiments you can try:
- Experiment with using pins or needles of different diameters. A smaller exhaust channel can result in faster, farther flight.
- Try different types of rocket launchers. Some people use bent paper clips, others use short sections of pipe, and others use small boards or cardboard. The ideal launcher would be one that sends the rocket straight and true, offering the least resistance between the launcher and the rocket when it is fired.
- Change the angle at which you launch your rockets.
- Try wrapping up one match and several match heads for extra power. But be careful—this will increase the weight, too.
- Experiment with different types of matches. Do you think a wooden match would work better? Why, or why not?
- Try making an exhaust channel on each flat side of the match instead of just one on the top.
Matthew is a homeschool graduate, now a Christian homeschool father to Abigail and Chandler, and husband to Lisa.