The Science Behind a Pumpkin Launch

As thousands of local students gear up for the Discovery Science Center’s annual Pumpkin Launch, they’ll face multiple challenges. That’s because there are many variables – some unexpected – that play a role in the success of a pumpkin not only getting airborne but also hitting its target.

Newton’s second law of motion comes into play, as does the shape of the pumpkin itself, explained Paul Pooler, Director of Education at the Discovery Science Center in Santa Ana, co-host of the event.

pumpkin launch
Pumpkins flying through the air at last year’s Discovery Science Center event.

“The amount of force applied to launch the pumpkin can determine both speed and distance, the more force applied to a catapult (a lever) will launch a pumpkin further,” Pool said. “As the pumpkin moves throughout the air, it is creating resistance. The shape of the pumpkin will determine how the air moves around it.”

Indeed, the irregular shape of a pumpkin can have a surprising effect on its flight path, Pooler said. Trajectory, the path at which the pumpkin is moving, will determine how far and high the pumpkin will travel.

“Depending on where you are aiming your pumpkin, you may choose for a high trajectory, the pumpkin travels high into the air, but usually for a shorter distance, or a low trajectory, lower into the air but usually for a longer distance. The key is to balance all these variables to hit your target.”