Static Stability

The problem of stability was my biggest challenge in the early days. It wasn't something I paid much attention to, and then I wondered why my rockets weren't flying upwards.

There are two points on a rocket one must look at when dealing with stability:

The center of gravity is simply the balancing point on the rocket. The center of pressure is the point where the drag forces are equalized. This can be visualized by imagining a weathervane:

The reason the weathervane points into the wind is because there is more drag on the rear when the wind blows, so the rear swings backwards. However, if the CP was in the same place as the CG:there would be no rotation, because the drag on one side of the CG would equal the drag on the other side.


But how large should the margin between them be?

There are a few guidelines to go by for a stable rocket:

-The CG should be at least one diameter of the rocket forward of the CP. This is called caliber stability, and 1 caliber equals 1 body diameter:

However, it won't help any to have the stability be more than 2 or 3 calibers. In fact, it could hurt stability (but that's getting into dynamic stability, which would have to be another post).

-The length of the rocket should be at least 10 calibers, but some say 12. In other words, the length to diameter ratio should be greater than 10:1.

-There are 3 ways to increase the margin between the CG and CP: 1) Add more weight to the nose (not a very good way, unless you're dealing with a scale model) 2) Increase the fin are (Tip: The best way is to increase the span, not the length. The farther from the rocket body, the less turbulent the air, so the fin is more effective). 3) Lengthen the body tube.

So how do you find out what the CG/CP margin is on a rocket? Well, to find the CG all you have to do is balance the rocket on a straight edge. But finding the location of the CP is a little more complicated...

One not very accurate way is to use the center of lateral area as the CP. To do this, make a 2D cardboard cutout of the rocket, and then balance it to find the CG. Then compare it with the CG of the actual rocket. This is an okay way to calculate stability. However, it turns out that the CP is even more complex than that.

You see, the center of lateral area is the CP when the rocket is flying at an angle of attack of 90 degrees (i.e. the aiflow is perpendicular to the rocket). That's the concept of dynamic stability: When the rocket is exposed to real flight conditions, the CP location will travel, depending upon the angle of attack.

There are equations that determine the position of the CP under actual flight conditions, known as the Barrowman equations. To learn how to use these equations, click here. They look complicated at first, but they're pretty straightforward if you know how to use simple arithmetic. Just plug in the numbers and the location of the CP appears.

As a third alternative, download some rocket design software to aid you with stability calculation. Rocket design software usually does much more than this, but they are an excellent and pretty reliable way of determining stability. To learn more about rocket design software, click here.

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