If you're studying physics, there are few more exhilarating classrooms than a roller coaster. Roller coasters are driven almost entirely by basic inertial, gravitational and centripetal forces, all manipulated in the service of a great ride. Amusement parks keep upping the ante, building faster and more complex roller coasters, but the fundamental principles at work remain the same.
In this article, we'll examine the principles that keep coaster cars flying around on their tracks. We'll also look at the hardware that keeps everything running, as well as the forces that make the ride so much fun.
The amusement-park industry has experienced a coaster boom of sorts in the past 15 years or so. New catapult launching techniques, hanging-train designs and other technological developments have opened up a world of options for designers. In recent years, designers have introduced coasters that have you lying flat against the train car so you feel as if you are flying, and coasters that shoot you down long stretches of spiraled track. "Fourth dimension" coasters spin or rotate your seat as the ride twists, turns and free-falls. In this article, we'll also keep you in the loop on all the newest features and innovations.
Roller coaster design is an art form, as well as a science. Roller coasters are governed by and embody someof the most fundamental principles of physics. A roller coaster going down a hill simply represents an intricatecase of an object sliding down an inclined plane. The concepts of G forces, lateral G forces, centripetal forces,inertia and energy all play a part in understanding the fundamentals of rollercoaster physics.The concept of energy is useful in understanding the dynamics of roller coasters.
energy are the 2 central forms of energy involved in the physics of roller coasters. Kinetic energy, to begin with,is the energy of motion. All moving objects have kinetic energy. The amount of kinetic energy a body hasdepends on its mass and speed. If the object has a large mass and travels at high speeds, then it has a lot of kinetic energy.Potential energy is energy that is stored in an object. This energy can be released and is often converted intoother forms of energy like kinetic energy. The higher above the ground an object is the more potential energy ithas.When a rollercoaster train is pulled up a first hill by motors, it is building up potential energy, which eventuallygets converted into kinetic energy as it falls. The further it drops, the more potential energy is converted intokinetic energy, and the train speeds up due to gravitational acceleration. After it is pulled up the first hill by themotor, the rollercoaster operates entirely on the potential energy obtained. However, since more and moreenergy is always lost to dissipative forces like friction or air resistance, and also gets converted into sound andheat energy as the ride progresses, the first hill that the train is pulled up on has to be bigger than all the other hills and loops of the rollercoaster as enough energy has to be obtained to go through them. As such, the trainwill go slower towards the end of the ride than it did at the beginning.A rollercoaster represents controlled fall. The track directs the train’s path, so that it wouldn’t move as it wouldif the track weren’t there. Inclined planes represent the simplest form of controlled fall. The basic rule of fallingdown an inclined plane is that a falling body will accelerate faster the steeper the slope is. If the slope iscompletely vertical, the body will experience
. If the plane is entirely horizontal, it would not fall at all.These laws concern rollercoasters as well, although the track on drops is parabolic in shape and not like aninclined plane. So the steeper a hill’s drop, the faster the train accelerates down it. However, if a train was on asteep and a small drop which were the same height above the ground, then they would both reach the bottomat the same speed (if friction were disregarded). This is because, although the train accelerates slower on thesmall hill, it has more time in which to accelerate. The amount of potential energy depends only on the heightabove ground and not the steepness.Another concept important in understanding the physics of rollercoasters is the concept of
. When abody sits still in the earth’s gravitational field, it is ina 1 G environment. A G forge is the force of the seatpushing up on a body. Without this force it would fall straight through the seat. The seat must exert the sameamount of force as the earth but in the opposite direction to keep the body sitting still. However, during freefallthe seat does not support the body, which is why it is falling. Since the seat exerts no forces on the body, itexperiences 0 Gs. This usually occurs when the coaster goes down hills. G forces greater than 1 can also beexperienced. This is typically experienced at the bottom of hills where the seat must exert a greater force on abody than normal to stop it from falling and divert its path upwards. Although it feels like you are being pushed