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Exploring the factors which affect a Parachute's descent rate

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Philip Jenkins

Physics A2 Practical Investigation

Exploring the factors which affect a Parachute’s descent rate

Aim – To find the relationship between the descent speed of a parachute and

  1. Its payload weight
  1. Its surface area
  1. The number of suspension lines

The three factors above should produce two clear relationships and one which is more uncertain.

  • Payload weight ∝ descent speed
  • Surface area         1       image00.png
  • The no of lines which the parachute uses to suspend the payload weight will affect the descent speed, but it is difficult to predict how the speed will vary.

Preliminary work

In order to get a range of speeds which were easy enough to measure (i.e. not too fast) a number of parachutes were constructed to find an optimum range between which more parachutes could be built. The results of these preliminary experiments showed that the proposed drop height (standing on a desk, around 2.5m) was too small, as the parachutes did not have time to unfurl. The school stairwell was chosen as its height was more than satisfactory.

Experiment 1 – Payload Weight

...read more.


 Notice how the line of best fit is not continued to the y-axis. This intercept should give the speed of the parachute with no mass attached, but as previously discussed the randomness of the parachute’s fall meant that no real value was suitable for its speed. It was decided that the trend line should only be drawn in the range of measurements taken.image01.pngimage02.png

It is clear however that as the payload mass increases, so does the decent speed so the first experiment was a success. The physics behind this result are that the downward force on the parachute will increase as the mass is increased, making the upward drag force of the parachute canopy less and less effective due to its constancy. The downward acceleration will therefore increase.

Experiment 2 – Parachute Radius

Five separate parachutes were constructed, with a range of radii from 10cm up to 25cm. The mass was kept at a constant 50g and the height again was 4.87m. Six suspension lines were used.

...read more.


  • The lines tended to become tangled after a drop, an time was wasted untangling them. Some way of keeping the lines separate would certainly improve the investigation.
  • The process of collecting the parachutes from the bottom of the stairwell was tedious and tiring. A recovery mechanism would have been a good idea – possibly some lightweight string attached to the top of the parachute, enabling it to be pulled back up the stairwell.

With more time available, it would have been beneficial to construct more parachutes of differing radii, to see if there was an optimum radius for a particular mass, requiring the least material. This would be relevant to a real world situation, where parachutes need to be safe but also use a small enough amount of material in order to be economically viable to produce.

Another interesting experiment would have been to see if the payload’s angle of suspension made a difference to the descent speed. E.g. “Would a payload close to the canopy fall faster or slower than one which was further away?”

...read more.

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