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Gravity and potential
January 2002Number 30
1
Gravity acts on all bodies that have mass.The gravitational force between two bodies is:
always attractive;
along the line joining the centers of mass of the two bodies;
of the same magnitude on both bodies, but acting in opposite directions;
proportional to the product of the two masses
∝ 
m
1
m
2
;
inversely proportional to the square of their seperation
.
Newton’s Law of Gravitation
states that the force between theattracting masses is :
1
2
Worked Example. Two heavyweight boxers stand 1 metre apart.If they each have a mass of 80 kg, what is the gravitational forceof attraction between them?
m
1
= m
2
= 80 kg.F = newtons.This is about 4.3
× 
10
− 
N, which is extremely small.
Worked Example. Calculate the gravitational force of attractionbetween one boxer (mass 80 kg ) and the Earth. Mass of Earthm
E
= 5.98
×××××
10
24
kg.
 Radius of Earth r
 E
= 6.36 
× × × × × 
10
m
.
This calculation is fairly straightforward but you should be carefulwith powers of ten, particularly when squaring distances in thedenominator.The calculation now looks like this:
F =F =
 
newtonsF =
7.89
×
10
2
 
 N Gm
1
m
2
2
Gravitational field
 A field is a region where we
 
can detect a
 
 force.
To find the gravitationalfield strength at a point, we place a mass m at the point and measure the(gravitational) force
.The gravitational field strength is defined to be the force per kg.This ratio is also called the acceleration due to gravity g. Since
g = F/m
,the field strength may be quoted in Nkg
1
, or ms
2
.
Field strength above the earth's surface
Consider a body of mass
m
at a point P a distance R from the
centre
of theEarth.
Gm
 E 
m R
2
Divide both sides by m gives the gravitation field strength
g
:Gravitational field strength = =
g
= - an
inverse square law
.
mGm
 E 
 R
2
 F actsheetP hysics
The gravitational force exerted by the earth on a mass is the
weight
of themass, which you will be familiar with from the formula
=
mg
, where
g
isthe acceleration due to gravity.This can be used to derive a relationship between
g
and
G
:Consider a mass
m
at the earth’s surface.
F =Gm
1
m
2
2
where
G
is the universal gravitational constant.(
G
= 6.67
×
10
11
Nm
2
kg
2
).
 
r
E
m
E
W = mgm
FFrm
1
m
2
 Exam Hint: -
Ensure you measure the seperation, r, between the
 centres of mass
of the two bodies, not between their surfaces.6.67 
× 
10
− 
11
 
× 
80
× 
801
2
6.67 
× 
10
− 
11
 
× 
80
× 
5.98
× 
10
24
( 6.36 
× 
10
)
2
We can write two expressions for the gravitational force acting on thismass due to the earth by using
W = mg
and Newton's Law of Gravitation.Equating these gives:
mg
=Cancelling
m
gives:
g =
This approach can be used to calculate the acceleration due to gravity onany planet, by substituting the mass and radius of that planet for themass and radius of the earth.eg. Jupiter has mass
1.90
× 
10
27 
kg and radius is
6.99
× 
10
m.So the acceleration due to gravity on Jupiter is
Gm
 J 
 /r 
 J 
 
2
= 26ms
-2
Gm m
 E 
 E 2
Gm
 E 
 E 2
where
m
 E 
= mass of the Earth
 E 
= radius of the EarthThe force
is given by
=
m
FPFm
E
R
 
Gravity and potential
Physics Factsheet
2
Field strength below the earth's surface
For points below the earth's surface, the situation is slightly morecomplicated:
Neutral point.
For any two bodies there is a point P in between them where the pull of one body to the right is balanced by the pull of the other body to the left.This is called a
neutral point.
A mass placed at P would be in equilibrium.Consider the planet Jupiter and its moon Ganymede:The graph below shows the variation in gravitational field strength (
g
)with distance from the centre of the Earth. Note that the value of 9.81that we often use is only correct at or near to the Earth’s surface - buteven at the top of mount Everest, the reduction is less than 0.4%The field strength at point P is due only to the shaded sphere, of radiusR, rather than the whole mass of the earth.If we assume the density of the earth is approximately constant, the massof the shaded sphere can be expressed as a fraction of the mass of theEarth by using:=So: =So:
m
= m
 E 
 R
3
 / r 
 E 3
The gravitational field strength will therefore be: 
g
==So below the earth's surface,
g
is directly proportional to distance fromthe centre.
P
 
Rmass of smaller spheremass of Earthvolume of smaller spherevolume of Earth
m
m
 E 
4
π
 R
3
 /34
π
 E 3
 /3
Gm
 E 
 R
3
 / r 
 E 3
R
2
Gm
 E 
 R
 E 3
Worked Example(a) Calculate the acceleration due to gravity at a height of 50 kmabove the surface of the earth.
 Mass of Earth m
 E
= 5.98
× × × × × 
10
 24
kg. Radius of Earth r
 E
= 6.36 
× × × × × 
10
m.G = 6.67 
× × × × × 
10
− − − − − 
11
Nm
 2
 kg
− − − − − 
 2
Use g = Gm
 E 
 /R
2
 Note that R = radius of earth + 50km = 6.41
× 
10
mSo g =
 
6.67 
× 
10
− 
11
× 
5.98
× 
10
24
/(6.41
× 
10
)
2 
g = 9.71 ms
-2
r
E
 
2r
E
3r
E
4r
E
Earth
g
1R
2
9.81
0246810g/Ng
-1
(b)Calculate the height above the earth at which g is a quarter of itsvalue on the surface of the earth.
We need to find the value of R when g = Gm
 E 
 /r 
 E 2
Surface value of g = Gm
 E 
 /r 
 E 2
 At distance R from the center, we have g = Gm
 E 
 /R
2
So we need to solve Gm
 E 
 /R
2
= Gm
 E 
 /4r 
 E 2
 Hence R
2
= 4r 
 E 2
So R = 2r 
 E 
So the height above the earth's surface is r 
 E 
= 6.36 
× 
10
m
Weightlessness
is a term often used. However, as can be seen from thegraphs and formula, there is
always
a force between the Earth and anymass and so the mass always has a weight. When you see pictures of orbiting astronauts it is better to describe them as
apparently
weightless.
Field LinesField lines
are used to show the presence of a gravitational field.
The
direction
of the gravitational field lines shows the
direction
of theforce acting on a mass in the field.
The
spacing
of the lines indicates the
strength (or intensity)
of the field.Lines close together = strong field; lines wide apart = weak field.The diagram below shows the gravitational field of a spherical mass such asthe Earth. A field like this is called a
radial field.
At increasing distance from the mass, the spacing increases showing thatthe field strength decreases - it follows the inverse square law detailedabove.PJupiterGanymedexSince the gravitational force due to Jupiter is equal to that due toGanymede at point P, we have=Substituting in and rearranging gives:
 y
2
 
( 1.90
×
10
27
) =
 x
2
(1.46
×
10
23
)Square-rooting gives:4.36
×
10
13
 y
= 3.82
×
10
11
 x
So114
 y
=
 x
Since
 x
+
 y
= Ganymede's orbital radius, we have 115
 y
= 1.06
×
10
9
,giving y = 9.2
×
10
6
m
Gm
 J 
 x
2
Gm
G
 y
2
yGanymede's orbital radius:1.06
×
10
9
m
m
G
: 1.46
×
10
23
kg
m
J
: 1.90
×
10
27
kg.
 
Gravity and potential
Physics Factsheet
3
Circular motion
Circular motion is covered fully in Factsheet 19, but to understand thissection you just need to know that for a mass moving in a circle withconstant speed:
Angular speed
ω ( 
rad s
-1
)
, linear speed
v (ms
-1
)
and radius of circularpath
r (m)
are related by the equation
v
=
ω 
The period of the motion (the time taken for one complete rotation)is given by 2
π/
ω 
There must be a force directed towards the centre of the circle (the
centripetal force
)
The magnitude of the centripetal force is
m
ω 
2
Consider the moon orbiting the Earth
:The force F which is necessary for circular motion of moonsaround planets, or planets around the sun, is provided by gravity
.Since the centripetal force is supplied by gravity, we have:Hence:
Gm
 E 
=
 
ω
2
 R
3
Planetary system - Kepler's Laws
Applying the same principle as above to any of the planets in the solarsystem orbiting the sun, we obtain:
Gm
=
 
ω
2
 R
3
where
m
 
is the mass of the sun, and R is the orbital radius of the planet.But since the orbital period,
= 2
π/
ω 
, we have
ω 
= 2
π/
T:Gm
= R
3
Rearranging:
Gm
2
= 4
π
2
 R
3
This gives us:
2
 
 R
3
This result is Kepler's Third Law of Planetary Motion.
 NB: This derivation relies upon approximating the planets' orbits bycircles, although they actually move in ellipses around the sun. However the result still holds true despite this.
Gravitational Potential Energy
Consider a mass m in the Earth’s gravitational field.ii)
 Again a = r 
 E 
, but b = 3r 
 E 
.
(pe) = G m
 E 
m
(pe) = 6.67 
× 
10
− 
11
 
× 
× 
10
24
 
× 
1
× 
(pe) = 4.19
 ×  
10
1
 E 
[
 
]
.
13r 
 E 
[ ]
23
× 
6.36 
× 
10
iii)
 Again a = r 
 E 
, but now, b =
∞ 
.
(pe) = Gm
 E 
m Note that = 0 and so,
(pe) = 6.67 
× 
10
− 
11
 
× 
× 
10
24
 
× 
1
× 
(pe) = 6.3
×
10
7
J or 63 MJ
1
 E 
[ ]
.
1
 ∞ 
1
∞ 
[ ]
16.36 
× 
10
There is an important idea contained in this last part. The 1 kg mass hasbeen taken to
‘infinity’
but the work done or gain in pe has increased by a
 finite amount 
( 6.3
×
10
7
J).
Gm
 M 
m
 E 
 R
2
=
m
 M 
 
ω 
2
 R
m
E
Fm
M
R
(
 
)
2
b
ha
 
Fmgm
 
To raise the mass from level a to b, the force F will do
work F 
 
×
h
on themass, which increases the potential energy of the mass by this amountSince
F = mg
, the increase in potential energy is given by
(p.e.) = mg
h
.There are two important things to note here:
We are only finding the
increase
in potential energy, we do not know
the
potential energy at a or b.
We have assumed that
g
is constant between the levels a and b.The assumption that
g
is constant is valid close to the Earth's surface, butfor positions further away from the earth, another approach is needed.Suppose we wish to move the mass between the two points fromwhere
 R
=
a
to
 R
=
b
and find the work done for this displacement.Because the force F is
varying
we
cannot
use the equation work = F
×
d.Fortunately there is a simple way round the problem. First we find thework done in taking the mass from the point where
 R
=
a
to infinity. Forthis displacement, the work done isNB: This equation only works in a radial field.To take the mass from the point where
 R = b
out to infinity would requirework of to be done.So the change in potential energy between the two points is 
=
Gm
 E 
m
 
m
E
F = Gm
E
mR
2
 R
=
a
m
 R
=
b
R
 
m
 
Gm
 E 
ma
 
Gm
 E 
mb
 
Gm
 E 
ma Gm
 E 
mb1a1b
Worked ExampleThe Earth has a mass m
E
= 6.0
×××××
10
24
kg and radius r
E
= 6.36
×××××
10
6
m.Find the gain in p.e. of a 1 kg mass when it is lifted from the Earth’ssurface to a height of i)
 h
=
 r
E
andii)
 h
= 2
 r
E.
iii)
 h
=
(infinity) Take
G = 6.67 
× × × × × 
10
− − − − − 
11
Nm
 2
 kg
− − − − 
 2
(pe) = G m
 E 
m
(pe) = 6.67 
× 
10
− 
11
 
× 
× 
10
24
 
× 
1
× 
 joules
(pe) = 3.15
× 
10
 J 1
 E 
[ ]
.
12r 
 E 
[ ]
12
× 
6.36 
× 
10
i)
Using the above, we have a =r 
 E 
and b = 2r 
 E 
(
 
)

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