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Sari on Science: Balloon rockets help explain how we’ll propel ourselves to Mars

After watching the incredible NASA Mars Perseverance rover landing last month, my daughter asked if she could go to Mars. At one time, this was a crazy, laughable question, but what’s exciting to me is that I can now tell her it’s actually possible!

Currently, NASA’s goal is to get the first human to Mars as early as the 2030s. So while I don’t see my daughter taking a weekend vacation to Mars anytime soon, astronauts in her generation will likely go on missions to Mars.

With that in mind, we then spent time on her next question: How do you get off the Earth in the first place?! You can explore this answer at home, too, with some simple balloon rockets.

Supplies:

  • Spool of fishing line or fine string, 15 feet or longer
  • Drinking straw
  • Tape
  • Scissors
  • One or more long, skinny balloons (regular balloons work in a pinch)
  • Small binder clip (optional)

Directions:

  1. Cut several short lengths (about 3 inches long) from a drinking straw, and thread one on a long line of string. You can keep the other pieces for later or for additional rockets.
  2. Tie the string taut between two firmly anchored objects, such as two trees or a couple of sturdy kitchen chairs. Try to keep the string as level as possible.
  3. Inflate a balloon.
  4. While holding the balloon shut (you can use the binder clip for this, too), use tape to attach the balloon to the straw on the string.
  5. Pull your balloon “rocket” back to the end of the string closest to the opening of the balloon.
  6. Release the balloon.
  7. Make observations. What happened?

What’s happening?

Space travel requires an enormous amount of energy. To overcome gravity and get off the ground, rockets burn fuel; the exhaust pushes against the Earth, and the rocket is thrust upwards away from the Earth’s surface. This is a great example of Newton’s third law of motion: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Here, the air in the balloon serves as the “fuel,” and as it escapes the balloon, your rocket is propelled in the opposite direction along the string. What happens if you use very little air? What happens if you add weight (like taped coins) to the balloon? Can you adjust your balloon rocket to travel twice the distance of your original string? Make new observations, and try your own experiments. Have your space explorer explain how this rocket is similar to the ones that go to space.

Did you know?

Arizona Science Center’s latest exhibition, Astronaut, has landed in downtown Phoenix, and it’s out of this world! This exhibition investigates the reality of what it takes to be a space explorer. Take on the physical and mental challenges in the astronaut training center, experience a rocket launch and the G-force training capsule, explore life on the Space Lab, and investigate how to do science in space. Can you work together to solve problems or accurately land a capsule? How would you eat in space?

If you have ever wondered what it’s like to live like an astronaut, visit this limited-time exhibition to find out. Astronaut is open from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily at Arizona Science Center, 600 E. Washington St., Phoenix. Visitors must reserve a timed general admission ticket ($19.95; $14.95 for ages 3-17) plus an $8.95 ticket for the Astronaut exhibition at azscience.org or by calling 602-716-2000.

RELATED: More “Sari on Science” activities

Sari Custer
Sari Custerhttp://azscience.org
Sari Custer is a lifelong science junkie, Chief Science and Curiosity Officer at Arizona Science Center, and mom to daughter Carson (6). Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @SariOnScience and find Arizona Science Center at azscience.org

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