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Model Rocket Maintenance

Article by Paul Nortness

You've built a rocket and flown it several times and you are starting to notice some wear and tear on both your rocket and launch equipment. How do you keep your rocket gear looking good while performing at a high level and staying safe? Today, we will discuss several ways to keep everything functioning as they did when they were new. There are several key pieces of equipment that we need to maintain. We will begin by talking about the ground support equipment. This entails the launch controller, pad and guide rod. Once we cover those, I will cover maintenance on the rocket itself.

Launch Controller Maintenance

The launch controller is an important piece of equipment. It supplies the electrical current that ignites the rocket motor. Most launch controllers use batteries. If your launch controller uses batteries, make sure they are in good condition. Open the unit and inspect the batteries for leaks or "fuzz". If a battery is getting old, white fuzz will appear on the ends or sometimes you might get a leaking battery. Simply replace the batteries if this is the case. If your batteries are leaking, it is best to handle them with latex gloves. Do not touch them as it is battery acid leaking out! Wipe off any excess residue with a paper towel. As launch controllers are not used every day and can spend weeks if not months stashed in your range box, it is a good idea to remove the batteries after each launch session.

model rocket maintenance

Another important part of every launch controller is the alligator clips that attach to the igniter. These little clips take a little abuse and can start to develop rust spots. When that happens, lightly sand the inner surface of each clip with some 100 grit sand paper and buff off any rust that may be forming. This will ensure your motors are getting ample current to ignite. There is a test I perform each time I prepare to go to the field. I connect the two alligator clips to each other and insert the safety key. If the light bulb illuminates, I am in store for a fun day of launching rockets. If not, I have an issue. Most times, it means I forgot to put the batteries in the controller before the test. But sometimes it means I need new batteries, or it could simply mean the light bulb has burned out. Either way, it is a pretty simple fix. Just pop off the clear plastic cover and replace the light bulb or put in fresh batteries. As a general rule of thumb, it is safe to count on about 200 launches from batteries.

model rocket maintenance 2

Launch Pad and Guide Rod

Another piece of important ground support equipment is the launch pad and guide rod. Inspect the legs of your launch pad and make sure there are no fractures that could cause the legs to fail. If you see any damage that could cause the launch pad to fail, replace the part. The last thing you want is the pad to collapse right when you press the launch button and fire your rocket into a crowd of onlookers. Next, carefully inspect the deflector plate. This part takes a huge amount of abuse as it deflects the hot gases and flame that come out of a rocket motor. Look for any weak points where the plate could fail. Failures are pretty rare but could result in torching the ground underneath so it's important to give it a good looking over. Again, if you see anything that could potentially cause it to fail you are best off to just replace the part.

Next we have the guide rod. This is a very important part as it helps your rocket start on a nice upward flight path. Without the rod, the rocket could go anywhere. Most people scrap the two piece rod and purchase a steel rod from home improvement stores. They have the advantage of coming in longer lengths (which is very helpful when launching bigger rockets) and since they are in one piece they don't have anything for the rocket to snag on in the middle of the rod. However, steel rods are susceptible to rust. This can be combatted by applying some WD-40 to the rod after each launch day. If I haven't been to the field in a while, I will apply some before I go to launch as well. If you haven't done this and your guide rod has begun to rust, WD-40 will also cure that as well. I would recommend lightly sanding the entire rod with some 200 to 300 grit sandpaper first, then spray WD-40 on the rod.

model rocket maintenance 3

Inspecting and Maintaining Your Rocket

Finally, it is important to inspect and maintain your rockets prior to flying. It is unsafe to fly rockets that are damaged as they could fail while in flight with uncontrollable results. First, check the fins. Inspect them for any fractures and give them a slight wiggle to see any damage in the root. A good solid fin should have a small amount of play but still feel solid. Any fin that feels loose should be removed and replaced. Using a hobby knife, score the base of the fin until it comes off. Sand any remaining fillet flush. If the fin is still intact you can just re-glue it but if there are any cracks it's time to cut yourself a new fin. Just use the old fin as a pattern and trace its outline onto fresh balsa. Check for any creases in the body tube. These could result in an airframe failure in flight. Creases can be mended by applying a thin bead of CA glue along the crease. If the crease worsens even with this repair in place, it is time to replace the rocket. If you are looking for more information on how to build your own rocket take a look at our model rocket building article.

The next thing I check is the recovery system. I make sure any knots in the shock cord are still tight and the parachute or streamer is not showing any signs of excessive scorching. Replace any part that appears damaged. When it comes to the recovery system, it is better to be safe than sorry. Nothing will destroy your rocket faster than sending it 1000 feet in the air and having it come down like a bullet.

Ultimately, it is a judgment call you must make. If you feel that a part isn't safe to fly, it is always best to err on the side of caution and retire that part. Following these easy steps, you shouldn't be retiring too many parts!

Have fun and happy flying!

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