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Centripetal Force

Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2023 all rights reserved.

If a mass is forced to follow a circular path, such as the mass \(m\) in figure 1, it is continually deflected from the straight path tangential to the circle that its momentum would otherwise carry it along. The momentum of the mass is constantly changing, because its velocity is changing in direction if not magnitude. According to Newton's laws of motion, a change in momentum must be caused by a force. Newton said that the force is equal to the rate at which the object’s ‘progress’ (today called momentum) changes, which is why momentum is abbreviated as ‘p’. In this case, the force is pulling the mass towards the centre of the circle of rotation and is called centripetal force.

The velocity at points 1 and 2 is \(v_1\) and \(v_2\). The difference between their velocities \(\Delta v \) can be found by the difference between their magnitudes and directions as shown in the small vector diagram. Because both \(v_1\) and \(v_2\) are tangential to a radius, the angle between their vectors \( \theta \) is the same as the angle \(\theta\) subtended by points 1 and 2 at the centre of rotation. The two triangles are therefore similar, and the ratio of the length of their bases to their sides is equal. If the time interval \(\Delta t\) is small, the distance between points 1 and 2 can be approximated as \(v\Delta t\).

\begin{equation} \frac{\Delta v}{v}=\frac{v\Delta t}{r} \end{equation}

Centripetal acceleration \(a_c\) for the mass \(m\) is the rate of change its velocity; \( \frac{\Delta v}{\Delta t} \).

\begin{equation} a_c = \frac{\Delta v}{\Delta t}=\frac{v^2}{r} \end{equation}

From Newton's Second Law for a given mass, \(F=ma\), the centripetal force \(F_c\) is:

\[ F_c = m a_c = \frac{mv^2}{r} \]

The centripetal force is developed in whatever it is, a piece of rope, a steel bar, etc., that is causing the mass to travel in the arc of a circle.

It is often said that rotation causes a centrifugal force that tries to make the mass fly outwards. But this force does not exist. If the centripetal force suddenly ceased to exist, the mass would not fly off along a radius to the circle of rotation but would instead continue in a straight line at a tangent to the circle. Centripetal force causes the mass to deviate from this tangential path. However, it is often easier to think in terms of a centrifugal force, even if it is “imaginary”.

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Copyright © David Boettcher 2005 - 2023 all rights reserved. This page updated April 2023. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.