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Experiment 3: Match Rockets


3 November 2009 by Quest 2, to link in with Chapter 3 of our book.


To find out what the best design of match rocket is.


Demonstration: A match rocket was demonstrated by Mr Mander. It used two matches laid end to end with the heads touching, then a small piece of aluminium foil was wrapped around the match heads and squeezed tightly around the stem of the holder match but loosely around the projectile match, making a "gun" barrel so the match would have room to escape from the foil. While holding the holder match, the foil-surrounded match heads were held over a flame. When the match heads ignited the projectile match fired off a short distance.

It started raining just after the demonstration so we shifted under cover, but still outdoors.

Each experimenter then made several match rockets and chose two to use in the experiment.

The experiment was performed outside away from flammable materials, with the experimenter wearing safety goggles and using pliers to hold his match rocket.

During the demonstration it was found that using matches to light the match rocket proved too hard so a meths burner was used instead. The burner was extinguished with a test tube after each match rocket or pair of rockets was fired.

Materials & Equipment

  • Matches.
  • Aluminium foil
  • Meths burner, lighter, test tube (for extinguishing).
  • Pliers.
  • Safety goggles essential for this experiment.


The meths burner flame was quite hard to see outside.

Experimenter Specimen # Specimen Observations Successful Launch?
Kent 1 Simple design but with lots of foil. Just went fizz, no launch. One match did not burn.
" 2 4 matches on each end, flat not bunched. Big flame, "did not work".
John 1 7 matches propelling 1 match. Big flame but did not fire off/launch.
" 2 Lots of foil, big gap between match heads. Did not properly fire.
Hamish 1 Lots and lots of foil. So much foil the matches burned but the match heads didn't even ignite.
" 2 Simple design, very short barrel. Fired off but got no distance.
James 1 Holding match reversed, meaning a single match head in the middle of an otherwise simple design. Holding match completely burned before ignition of match head. Got a few cm in a negative direction.
" 2 Similar except two match heads in centre. No distance on ignition.
Mr Mander 1 Simple design, medium length loose barrel. Hard to light resulting in holding match burning but perfect firing when it did ignite, giving ~2 m distance.
" 2 3 matches propelling 1 match. Burned through foil when it ignited. Got nearly zero distance.

The pliers got sooty during testing.


  • Burning match heads are able to provide enough force to propel a match through the air.
  • Burning match heads are not able to provide enough force to propel a match through the air if the force is not carefully controlled and contained.
  • A simple design of match rocket works best, with a medium length slightly loose barrel and not too much aluminium foil.
  • A meths burner in slightly windy conditions is not the easiest thing for lighting a match rocket but it works better than matches.


We learned by burning iron filings that reactions occur faster when the particles involved are smaller. This experiment is a perhaps not very good example showing that reactions occur faster when they are under pressure. Temperature is one other thing that affects reaction rates.

Would extra long matches work? If they have the same size match head but a longer stem they will weigh more for the same propulsive force, so if they launched they probably wouldn't go as far. The matches could be cut (or broken) shorter to make them lighter.