The flight of the rocket

Ballistics calculations

Now we know how to calculate the thrust, it's time to calculate how high does this rocket go.

For that, we can distinguish 2 phases of flight :

  1. The boost phase
  2. The coast phase

The boost phase itself is divided in 3 steps :

  1. The ejection of the launcher
  2. The "water boost" phase
  3. The "gas boost" phase

But in these 3 steps, the rocket is submitted to 3 forces :

The resultant of these 3 forces makes the rocket accelerate (or decelerate). The calculation of this acceleration is given by the Newton's second law of motion :

a = F/M

where a is the acceleration, M is the mass of the rocket and F the resultant of the three forces which are applied on it, so F = P - Pf - R. Seen as this, the calculation seems simple, unfortunately, each of these terms changes all the time, so the problem becomes very complicated. Now we detail each step.

The ejection of the launcher

Of course this step has sens only if you use a launcher with a rod inside the bottle, like those I describe in this site.

Here the thrust is given by the pressure acting on the launch rod. No mass of water or air is ejected (even if there is a leak we neglect it), thus the mass of the rocket don't change. The only one thing which change is the volume allocated to the air, actually, when the rocket go up on the rod, this one release space. If the volume of the air increase, that means that pressure decrease. This phenomenon being very fast, we can consider that we are in an adiabatic process (without heat exchange with outside) so we can use the relationship pVgamma = constante (gamma is the adiabatic constante , that is 1,4 for air). If p1 and V1 are respectively the pressure and the volume at beginning then p2 and V2 the pressure and the volume at the output of the launcher. We have p2 = p1*(V1/V2)gamma.

The volume V2 at the output of the launcher is equal to the bottle's volume, and V1 = V2 - Vt where Vt is the volume of the rod inside the rocket at the beginning. If this rod has a diameter d and a length L, Vt = pi*d2*L/4 thus :


To simplify the calculations, we will consider that the pressure is constant and equal to the average of p1 and p2, while running along the launch rod. We will neglect also the air drag, so with these conditions the acceleration is : a = F/M, with F = ((p1+p2)/2)*s - M*g and, if we replace p2 by its value found previously :

a= (p1(1+(1-(pi*d2*L/4*V2))gamma)*(pi*d2/4)-2*M*g)/2*M

Be careful, here, p1 is the absolute pressure, that is the pressure gauge plus the atmospheric pressure.

As we have the acceleration, we can calculate the speed v= a * t. However, we don't know the time t, but we know that an increase of altitude for a time t and with a constant acceleration a is given by dh = 1/2 * a * t2. Here, this increase of altitude is the length of the launch rod L. Thus t = sqaure(2*L/a) and then :

v = square(L *(p1(1+(1-(pi*d2*L/4*V2))gamma)*(pi*d2/4)-2*M*g)/M)

Numeric example : Take our 1.5 liter bottle, suppose its empty weigth of 100g . Fill in at 33% thus with 0,5 L of water. Tshe launch rod has a diameter of 20mm and a length of 20 cm.

The total mass of the rocket will be M = Mf + Me + Ma where Mf = the empty mass of the rocket, Me = Mass of water and Ma = mass of air. This last one seems to be negligible, but we will see below that it is not so negligible. We calculate this mass with the formula : P*V = m*R*T where P is the pressure, V the volume, m the mass, R the mass constant of the air (286,91 J/kgK) and T the ambiant temperature in Kelvin. In our example and if we suppose the temperature at 27C thus 300 K, so the mass of the air will be Ma = p1*V1/R*T that is

Ma = 709275 *(1-0,063)/(1000*286,9*300) = 7,7 g so the total mass will be

M = 0,1 + 0,5 + 0,0077 = 0,6077 kg

Now we can calculate the speed v = square(0,2* ((709275*(1+(1-(6,3*102))1,4)*(3,14*10-4)-2*0,6077*9,81)/0,6077) = 11,7 m/s that is a little bit more than 42 Km/h. Notice that we have an average thrustof 213 N and an acceleration of 340 m/s2 (that is 34 times the earth gravity). The drag at the end of the launch rod is R = K*S*v2, thus with a coefficient K of 0,3 and an area of 3,14*0,0882/4 = 0,006 m2 : R = 0,26 N so we can neglect it when faced with

the thrust (213 N) and the weight M*g = 0,6077 * 9,81 = 5,96 N

The "water boost" phase

This is the (very short) period during which the water is expelled.

During this phase, the forces applied to the rocket are :

The second law of motion a = F/M is always applied :

a = dv/dt = (2*(p1-Patm)*s2 - M*g - K*Sf*v2) /M

Here, all the terms changed at any time. As the water is expelled, the mass M of the rocket decrease (thus the acceleration and the speed increase) and the volume of the air increase thus the pressure p1 decrease and if the speed increase, then the drag increase also.

The resolution of this equation in not very simple, and I admit that I don't know any more how to resolve this kind of equation. But, fortunately, the power of the computers allows us to find numerically the solution by computing step by step the value of each terms, considering that they don't change during the step. Two steps are a small amount of time apart. These calculations give good results and many well-informed Water rocketeers made good simulators .

The "gas boost" phase

When all the water is expelled, it remains compressed gas in the bottle. Of course the pressure is lower, but this makes a thrust not negligable.

The calculation of the thrust in this case is more difficult because the gas is compressible, so we have to use the generalised Daniel Bernoulli's equation. But here I surrender, so I trust to the results given by Bruce Berggren, in November 97 on the mail-list. Bruce says that this "gas boost" can be considere as an instantaneous impulse (momentum) applied to the rocket and which produces an increase of the speed of impulse/mass. The mass is the average between the beginnig and the end of this phase. The impulse is given by the formula :

Imp = V*4050/racine(T1)*(p1/Patm-1)1,24

V is full chamber volume in m3, T1 and p1 are respectively the temperature in K and the pressure in Pa of the gaz in the bottleat the beginning of the air burst.

To compute T1, then p1 , we assume that we are in an adiabatic process (without heat exchange with outside, which is probably true due to the very short time). In these conditions, we can use the ideal gas equations :

T*V(gamma-1) = constante

p*V(gamma) = constante

Thus T1*V1(gamma-1) = T2*V2(gamma-1), then T1 = T2*(V2/V1)(gamma-1). If we consider V2 and T2 as the volume and the temperature of the air just before the launch and V1 and T1 the volume and the temperature of the air at the beginning of the air burst. But V1 is the full chamber volume and V2 = V1 minus the volume of water. If Cr is the fill ratio then V2 = V1 * (1 - Cr), thus

T1 = T2 * (1-Cr)(gamma - 1)

In the same manner, we have :

p1 = p2 * (1-Cr)gamma

Numeric example : With the values of our previous example, where T2 = 300K, Cr = 33%, p2 = 7 bars thus 709275 Pa (This is the absolute pressure) and gamma = 1,4 for the air. So, we have : T1 = 300*(1-0,33)0,4 = 255,6 K (-17,4C) and p1 = 709275 * (1-0,33)1,4 = 404873 Pa

the impulse = 0,0015 * 4050 / square (255,6)*(404873/101325 - 1)1,24 = 1,48 N*s

Now we can compute the increase of speed = impulse/mass. We know the impulse, we have to compute the average mass, This is the rocket mass plus the half of the air mass expelled during this phase. We have previously computed the gaz mass just before the water boost phase , this mass doesn't change during the water boost phase because, only the water is expelled out of the rocket (in any case, we do this hypothesis). Now we compute the mass of gaz at the end of gaz boost phase with the same principle as above : Ma = p*V/R*T with p = Patm and V = volume of the bottle, R = 286,91 J/kgK, but we have to compute T. During the phase of adiabatic process, the volume stays constant, so we can use the relation :

T * P((1-gamma)/gamma) = constante .

and thus T = T1 * (p1/Patm)((1-gamma)/gamma)

Numeric example : T = 255,6 * (404873/101325)((1-1,4)/1,4) = 172 K ( -101 C ) thus the mass is Ma = 101325 * 0,0015/286,91 * 172 = 0,0031 kg.

We have seen previously that the gaz mass at the lift off and thus at the end of water boost phase was 7,7 g (0,0077 kg). So the average mass of air is : 5,4 g and the one of the rocket is therefore 105,4 g, as a result, the increase of speed due to the ejection of the residual air is v = 1,48 / 0,1054 = 14 m/s what is not negligible (more than 50 km/h).

The coast phase

In this phase, there is no more propulsion force, so the rocket, always submit to its weight and the air drag, continue on its way until its speed becomes null ( apogee), then it fall down. During the ascent, The weight and the drag will combine to decelerate the rocket while in descent, the drag is opposed to the weight of the rocket.

The relation a = F/M always apply, of course, therefore :

a = dv/dt = (- M*g - (|v|/v)*K*Sf*v2) /M

where (|v|/v) is the sign of the speed (if the speed is positive, the rocket goes up, the air drag is added to the weight , if the speed is negative, these forces must be substrasted) thus the speed at the instant t is equal to the speed at the instant t-dt plus the variation due to the acceleration, that is : a*dt. As for the variation of altitude, it is the product of the average speed during this period by the interval of time dt :

dh = Vmoy*dt where Vmoy = (Vt-1 + Vt)/2. Vt-1 is the speed at t-1 et Vt is the speed at t.

There, again, the numeric computation allow us to know the altitude reached, then the time of fall down et the speed of touch down, if there is no device to slow down the descent. We can introduce the influence of the openning of a parachute given that the coefficient K increase (this is now those of the parachute that is about 1) and the area Sf becomes also those of the parachute.

Flight simulator

Numerous rocketeers had realised some flight simulators. I just cite those I consider as the mains :