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Centripetal Force

Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2020 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 there is a centrifugal force that it is trying to make the mass to fly outwards. But this force does not exist. If the centripetal force suddenly ceased to exist, the mass would continue undisturbed in a straight line at a tangent to the circle. It would not fly outwards. It is causing the mass to deviate from this path that causes the centripetal force.

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Copyright © David Boettcher 2006 - 2020 all rights reserved. This page updated February 2020. W3CMVS. Back to the top of the page.