How to build a fiberglass rocket, part 14: ground testing

The final chapter in the long saga of building the Darkstar Extreme: ground testing.

Actually, I don’t know whether I should have saved this step for the end. I’ve been looking at what some other folks do, and I’ve seen several people conduct ground testing as soon as the rocket is technically built, but prior to any kind of priming or painting, or adding other finishing touches. To be honest, that probably makes more sense because it’s bound to suffer some minor scratches and scrapes during testing, so better to do it “naked” and paint it later. Fortunately, I don’t care!

long blue rocket on wooden test stand, on grass - angled front view
testing time

Just to take a step back and recap what I’m even doing here: ground testing is important to test the electronics inside the rocket and make sure everything is wired up and working properly. I won’t go into the details of the electronics bay, but there are a lot of things connected to other things, and then there are more things. If even a single connection is loose or comes apart, the whole e-bay could cease to perform its basic function.

And by “its basic function,” I mean the flight computer (circuit board), connected to both a battery and an on/off switch, needs to be powered on and fire a charge at the right moment, which causes an electric match to spark, which causes some carefully packed black powder to explode, which causes the rocket to separate in a pre-determined place. And then it all needs to happen again to cause the rocket to separate in a different place. Parachutes deploy, rocket lands safely.

long blue rocket on wooden test stand, on grass - side view
might need a better test stand

Aside from generally checking that the electronics and wiring work correctly, ground testing is particularly important to determine the appropriate amount of black powder (BP) to use. There are different types of BP, and there are many online calculators that will tell you, based on the volume of your rocket’s interior space and your desired pounds per square inch (PSI), how much BP you should use exactly. However, actual conditions can vary, and it’s a good idea to test – and test again.

Ultimately, you want to use enough BP to ensure that the rocket separates, forcefully. Really forcefully. With verve. Anything less than this could cause a failure to separate, which means the parachute probably won’t deploy, which could be catastrophic for the rocket (and potentially any hapless bystanders). Of course, you don’t want to use so much BP that the explosion itself destroys your rocket, either. It’s a fine line. Your precious rocket hangs in the balance.

long blue rocket resting on box, on grass - side view
problem solved

I did multiple rounds of ground testing on different days (note the color variation and also choice of test stands in the different photos). On that note: never use a more elaborate test stand than necessary. Here I was, building a crude stand out of wood, like a sucker! I could have just been using a cardboard box all along. The angle is better anyway.

The calculator told me that I should use about 2.5 grams of BP, but I found that I needed to use closer to 3.0 grams to really separate the rocket forcefully. I also have a backup flight computer with its own separate charges, and for the backup I will use about 4.0 grams of BP. Gotta make sure it gets the job done.

rocket parts spread across grass in back yard, after separation
as god intended

It’s debatable whether this testing is really part of the rocket’s construction, strictly speaking, but in any event this was the final step before launching the rocket out in the field.

Now it’s time to fly!

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