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Cart-catches-ball analysis

A cart is released from rest on a frictionless inclined plane. A ball is projected upward from the cart, perpendicular
to the inclined plane, and the ball follows its trajectory in a vacuum. The ball may be released just as the cart starts
rolling, or some time later. The objective is for the cart to catch the ball somewhere down the ramp. Here, catch
means that the cart and the ball arrive at the same point on the ramp at the same time.
To help picture the situation, imagine a remote control with two buttons: pressing the first button releases the cart
from the top of the ramp, and it begins rolling down. Pressing the second button then releases the ball, projecting it
upward perpendicular to the ramp direction.
As in most mechanics problems, we are free to choose any convenient coordinate system. For inclined-plane
problems, choosing x to be positive down the plane (ramp) and y to be positive upward, perpendicular to the ramp
usually results in a simpler analysis, as opposed to using the local horizontal as x.
Figure 1 shows the resolution of the gravitational acceleration vector into components in this rotated (x,y)
coordinate system. In the usual Cartesian system (X,Y) that is relative to the local horizontal, the g vector is entirely
in the y direction; there is no x component. In the rotated system, however, there are both x and y components of g.
The appropriate trig functions can be determined by geometry, or just by reasoning through what the effect of a zero,
or 90 degree, ramp angle would be. In the x (along the ramp) direction, if the ramp angle approaches zero, there
will be no acceleration; if the ramp angle approaches 90 degrees, all the gravitational acceleration will be along this
direction. Hence the appropriate trig function for the along-the-ramp direction is the sine. Thus the normal-to-theramp component of this acceleration varies with the cosine of .

g s in()
g cos ()

Figure 1. Coordinate systems: (x,y) rotated; (X,Y) usual Cartesian coordinates.

WCEvans 10/09

First we will analyze the motion of the cart. In the rotated system its parametric equations of motion, using
elementary kinematics for a constant acceleration, are

xt = v0x t +

1 2
g t sin( )

yt = 0


where v0x is the initial x-velocity of the cart. The component of gravitational acceleration along the ramp is readily
shown to be g sin(). This equation is simple, but usually we will need to have the motion in the un-rotated system,
for example, for graphics plotting. Thus we need to rotate these equations back to the usual Cartesian system.
To do this, we use a rotation matrix, and recognize that the rotation angle is negative. This gives

cos ( ) sin ( )
cos ( ) sin ( )

sin ( ) cos ( )
sin ( ) cos ( )
so that the un-rotated equations are

cos ( ) sin ( ) xt
sin ( ) cos ( ) yt


where (X0 Y0) are the coordinates of the carts starting point. Carrying out these matrix operations leads to

X t = X 0 + xt cos ( ) + yt sin ( )

Yt = Y0 xt sin ( ) + yt cos ( )


Using the results in Eq(1) above for xt and yt in Eq(3) we then have

1 2
g t sin ( ) cos ( )
g t 2 sin ( ) sin ( )

X t = X 0 + v0x t cos ( ) +
Yt = Y0 v0x t sin ( )

which can be simplified to the final un-rotated cart equations of motion

1 2
g t sin ( 2 )
g t 2 sin 2 ( )

X t = X 0 + v0x t cos ( ) +

Yt = Y0 v t sin ( )



This is a projectile motion problem, with the added twist that there is now an acceleration in the x-direction, and the
y-direction acceleration is not just g, it is g cos(). A fundamental assumption of projectile motion problems is that,
assuming motion in a vacuum, there is no acceleration in the horizontal direction. That is not the case here.
The parametric equations of motion for the ball, in the rotated system, will then be

xt = v0x t +

1 2
g t sin ( )

yt = v0y t

1 2
g t cos ( )


Note that the x-direction motion of the ball is exactly the same as for the cart, in the rotated system. The ball is
launched with initial y-velocity v0y, perpendicular to the ramp. Using the rotation matrix again, to get the motion in

WCEvans 10/09

the un-rotated system, we use Eq(5) in Eq(3), and with a bit of algebra and trig, we find the ball equations of

X t = X 0 + v0x t cos ( ) + v0y t sin ( )

Yt =

Y0 v0x t sin ( ) + v0y t cos ( )

1 2



One way to find out if the cart will catch the ball is to see if there is a real solution for the time of flight (TOF).
Since the ball and cart have the same x equation of motion in the rotated system, there will be a catch, i.e., the cart
and ball will be at the same x-coordinate, at the TOF, if it exists. At the TOF T, the condition is that the rotatedcoordinate y is zero, when the ball has returned to the ramp, so, using the y-component of Eq(5),

yT = 0 = v0y T

g T 2 cos ( )

from which, if T is not zero (the trivial solution),

T =

2 v0y
g cos ( )


Note that the x initial velocity has no effect on the TOF. Intuitively, this is because the ball has the same x (downthe-ramp) velocity as the cart at the instant of release.
Another approach to the catch issue is to equate the x (or y) positions of the cart and ball in the un-rotated system,
and see if there is a real solution for the time at which this happens. Using the x-components of Eq(4) and Eq(6), it
can be shown that Eq(7) results; using the y-components produces the same result.
Finding where along the ramp the intersection, or catch, occurs is just a matter of using the TOF, Eq(7), in Eq(1).
This results in

2 v0y
v0x + v0y tan ( ) = T v0x + v0y tan ( )
xT =
g cos ( )


with yT = 0. The only effect of a nonzero initial x velocity is to move the catch point down the ramp. Since this is
arbitrary, it is simpler for simulation purposes to release the ball at the same instant the cart begins to roll, so that the
initial x velocity can be taken to be zero. With that assumption, the un-rotated coordinates of the catch point are

XT = X 0 +

( )

2 v0y

tan ( )

YT = Y0

( )

2 v0y

tan 2 ( )


These equations can be implemented in a TI-83/84 calculator, in Parametric mode. Use Eq(4) and Eq(6); choose
some convenient values for the initial x and y, the ramp angle, and initial y-velocity. With proper setting of the
Window parameters, and graphing in the point-by-point mode, an animation of the motion of the ball and cart can be
obtained. Of course, the Geogebra implementation is easier to see, and more flexible.

WCEvans 10/09