Roller Coaster Physics
Now let's bring it all together to understand how the physics concepts explored in this website relate to roller coasters. Below, there are explanations of the the three main concepts explored on this website and how they relate to roller coasters. It is important to develop an understanding of how these concepts relate and allow roller coasters to function.
The concept of motion is essential in understanding how a roller coaster works. On most roller coasters you must climb a lift hill at the start, this will bring you to the top of the first downward slope. Once you begin to decline down the steep track, you begin to gain speed. Therefore, it can be said that the roller coaster cart is accelerating. As roller coaster cart do not have any engines, they depend on gravity to give them speed. This means that the roller coaster cart accelerates and decelerated due to the force of gravity. When the roller coaster cart travels down hill it accelerates (the velocity increases), and when the roller coaster cart travels up hill it decelerates (the velocity decreases). We are able to calculate the velocity of the roller coaster cart at any time by using the formulas given on the Motion page. The mass of the roller coaster cart will remain constant if the cart is empty; however, as people will be riding into the cart, the mass of the people also needs to be taken into account.
Energy is also another essential concept needed in the understanding of how roller coasters work. Most roller coasters include many hills in the tracks. When the roller coaster cart is at the very top of one of these hills, the potential energy of the cart is at its maximum while the kinetic energy of the cart is at its minimum. Again, as roller coaster carts do not have any engines, they rely on the force of gravity to give them energy and motion. Therefore, it can be said that the roller coaster cart gains gravitational potential energy as it travels up a hill while losing kinetic energy. Also, as the roller coaster cart travels down a hill in the track it loses gravitational potential energy, but gains kinetic energy. The kinetic energy of the roller coaster cart is at is maximum when the cart has reached the bottom of the hill. This also means that at the bottom of the hill the gravitational potential energy is at its minimum. Both the gravitational potential energy and the kinetic energy of the roller coaster cart can be calculated at any piont on the roller coaster track by using the formulas given on the Energy page.
Force is required to act upon an object in order to move it, such as the force required to puch a rollercoaster along a track. The understanding of forces also enables the designers of roller coasters to create thrilling rides, but keep the g-forces involved at a safe level in order to not harm the riders. The knowledge of the forces involved in roller coasters is as much about thrill as safety, and therefore is of paramount inportance when designing a roller coaster. For more on forces, visit the Force page.
Explore the materials below to learn more about the physics of roller coasters. You may use as many or as little of the resources as you like. Work at your own pace and feel free to discuss what you find with your team members and classmates.