Grant Thompson, a YouTuber and rocket enthusiast, decided to strap a phone  on a rocket and send it into the sky.

The rocket is 10-ft (about 3 m) and weighs 60lbs (27 kg) fully loaded with solid rocket fuel. At take-off, it produced 750lbs of force. The rocket accelerated incredibly fast, reaching Mach 1.35 in just a few seconds. At its max height, the rocket reached 20,000-ft (about 6000 meters).

So he didn’t lose his phone, Thompson used a vacuum form to attach the phone to the rocket. He then secured it with duct tape.

Despite the incredible g-force and rough landing, the phone made it to the ground. Upon further inspection, the phone captured the entire flight. The rocket took off without a hitch.

How Rockets Work

Rockets depend on thrust which varies on the mass flow rate, a ratio of how quickly rocket propellant can be accelerated out the nozzle. The propellant is created with a chemical compound which contains a high chemical potential energy. The chemicals energy is released violently in a controlled combustion which accelerates down towards the nozzle. The shape of the nozzle similarly effects that rate of flow, causing rocket engines to have conical thrusters. This provides extra space as the gas rapidly expands toward the nozzle.

Common Types of Engines

Currently, the two most common rocket engines are solid fuel and liquid fuel engines. Solid fuel is commonly made out of an oxidizer mixed into a chemical compound. An ignition charge starts the reaction between the two chemicals. Once ignited, the rocket can’t alter the burn rate. The fuel is self-oxidizing, and therefore, uncontrollable.

[Image Source: Wikimedia]

Unlike solid fuel engines, liquid engines need to be injected with oxygen since there is little to no oxygen stored in the liquid propellant itself.

Solid fuel rockets are much more stable than liquid fuel rockets. Liquid engine rockets require liquid oxygen to be mixed with a large amount of liquid fuel propellant. While the liquid fuel contains a lot of potential energy, it requires an oxidizing agent to work. The oxygen often comes in the form of liquid oxygen.

However, the liquid oxygen requires being maintained at a temperature no warmer than -183° Celsius. In space, maintaining the temperatures in which liquid oxygen can exist in a stable condition is much easier than creating the same conditions on earth. If the temperature is exceeded, the liquid will boil, creating a pressure of gas within the oxygen tank. Improper storage can result in the oxygen being prematurely deployed, or even worse, cause the tank to crack and leak highly flammable oxygen into the combustion chamber located directly below. If the fuel mixes prematurely, the result can be explosive. A combination of the events occurred on the Falcon 9 which exploded September 1st.

The Future of Propulsion

Rocket engine technology marginally changed over several decades. However, multiple companies are working on hybrid rockets that take advantage of fuel efficiency and availability. Petroleum products are becoming increasingly expensive as the resource slowly depletes. As a result, rocket engines need to adapt alternate technologies in order to cope with the change.

Hydrogen Rockets

A patent released in 2010 describes a rocket which uses water or hydrogen and oxygen fuel supply. The elements are separated into a gas using electrolysis. The after the liquid becomes a gas, it is combusted, producing aluminum oxide. The non-toxic chemical serves as a main component of clay and bauxite.

Aluminum Fuel Engine[Image Source: US Patent 20100028255 A1]

The aluminum fuel provides the necessary heat to power on-board generators which create the electricity required to initiate electrolysis. Aluminum’s abundance means it can be used at a relatively low cost. Instead of storing large amounts of liquid hydrogen or oxygen, the rocket produces the compound on demand, reducing the chances of a catastrophic accident.

Advancing Technologies

Other technologies include NASA’s ion-drive engine whose engineering blueprints were recently released into the public domain. The ion thruster works by ionizing a propellant by removing electrons to produce ions. The propellant gets ionized through a process which bombards the compound with high-energy electrons. The compound releases electrons and becomes positively charged. It turns into a high-energy gas which then converts into plasma.

Ion Drive Engine[Image Source: NASA]

The compound then gets accelerated through chambers which exert a positive charge on the plasma. The plasma moves toward a negative electrode at incredibly high speeds, up to 145,000 km/h. The ions then eject out of the engine which exerts a force on the craft, accelerating it in the opposite direction.

The Future of Travel

So what role will rockets play in future space travel? Probably not much given today’s technology. Reaching near planetary systems won’t be possible until rocket engines can accelerate faster than they can today. However, rocket technology came a long wary from its solid-fuel roots to the ion-driven engines today.