Problem

A circular spaceship of radius r rotates in space (that is, with respect to an inertial frame, such as the distant stars) with angular
velocity Ω to produce artificial gravity. A woman standing on the edge of the ship tosses a ball straight up with initial velocity v.
What path does the woman see the ball to follow until it hits a wall? (Treat this as a non-relativistic problem. There is no "real"
gravity involved. Also, I assumed the ball hits a wall. If you think the ball doesn't hit a wall, describe its orbit).
Heuristic
Imagine we are outside the spaceship, floating freely in an intertial frame. By Newton's first law, we must see the ball move in a
straight line. The line starts at the woman, and stays inside the ship.
Any such line will eventually hit another part of the wall, and by definition this is the end of the trajectory. So we already know
the ball does come back to the wall and doesn't orbit. As far as what the woman sees, we know the ball's trajectory is a line as
viewed from outside the ship, but the inside of the ship is an accelerated frame, so Newton's laws don't hold. The trajectory
doesn't necessarily have to be a line.
We've narrowed it down to a family of possible solutions: all the trajectories that, when viewed from outside the ship, look like
straight lines from one part of the ship to another (chords of the circle).
We also know approximately what direction the ball will go. The woman believes she throws it straight up towards the center.
But she's moving relative to us. In the picture above, she's moving to the right. Imagine someone rolling past you in a skate-
board, who believes they throw something straight up. It comes back to them, but in the mean time they've moved off to the right
some. Therefore, you think they threw the ball not only up, but also a bit to the right.
The same reasoning applies to the woman on the spaceship, as viewed by us outside the ship. She thinks she's throwing the ball
straight up, but we think she's throwing it somewhat up and somewhat in the same direction she's moving. So now, although we
can't tell the exact path of the ball, we know the shape of its trajectory and its approximate direction.
Every single line has the same horizontal component to its velocity (to wit: the horizontal velocity the woman had, viewed from
outside the ship, the moment she threw the ball). This is the "run" of the slope of the lines we drew above. Then the steep lines
must have a very high "rise", because for these high-slope lines
rise
run
is a big number. Those trajectories result whe she hurls the
ball as hard as she can. As she throws it harder and harder, the horizontal velocity becomes less and less important, and the
trajectory is nearly a straight line through the center and to the other side of the ship. However, no matter how hard she throws it,
if she throws it straight up it will not reach the dead center.
On the other hand, the lines that are short and mostly horizontal have a low slope, and this a low "rise". So they are trajectories
for tossing the ball gently. If she throws the ball gently, it comes back to the wall quickly. (We are assuming, for simplicity, that
she throws the ball from height zero, just at the floor of the ship. For any given velocity of throwing the ball, this becomes a
better and better approximation as the size of the ship goes to infinity).
Suppose we had one more bit of information: the closest the ball gets to the center of the ship (for example,
1
2
way). Then we
could draw the locus of all points that particular distance from the center (a circle). One of our possible solutions will be tangent
to that circle. That would then be the path of the ball.
We now know the path of the ball from outside the ship: a line tangent to some circle or other. But we want the trajectory as seen
by the woman herself. From her own point of view she is stationary, but from ours she is twirling around the edge of the circle at
the same time the ball is floating through space. They're going in the same direction, so maybe she catches up to the ball and it
lands right in her hands? Or does it land in front of her, or behind? Maybe it depends on the initial conditions?
The answer is that the ball lands in front of her. To see this, first imagine she really wings the ball as hard as she can. Then it
flies across the spaceship in just a brief moment. Since it takes such a short time to get there, from our frame the woman has only
rotated a small distance, and the ball lands way out in front of her. This doesn't mean that the ball always has to land in front of
her, but at least for large initial velocities, it does.
Next, imagine she throws the ball very lightly. The ball follows a very short chord. But in the limit as a chord get shorter, its
length converges to that of the arc it subtends. So the distance the ball travels and the distance the woman would have to travel to
catch it converge in this limit. Also, because the horizontal drift speed shared by the woman and the ball is much greater than the
vertical speed of her weak toss, the ball and woman have almost the same velocity. Same distance to travel and same velocity
mean that, in this limit, the ball comes closer and closer to landing right back in her hands.
It's reasonable to assume that the position where the ball lands relative to the woman is a continuous function of how hard she
throws it. It is also reasonable to guess that as she throws the ball harder and harder, the distance in front of her that it lands rises
smoothly (although not necessarily linearly) from zero to half the diameter of the ship.
We also know approximately what direction the ball will go. The woman believes she throws it straight up towards the center.
But she's moving relative to us. In the picture above, she's moving to the right. Imagine someone rolling past you in a skate-
board, who believes they throw something straight up. It comes back to them, but in the mean time they've moved off to the right
some. Therefore, you think they threw the ball not only up, but also a bit to the right.
The same reasoning applies to the woman on the spaceship, as viewed by us outside the ship. She thinks she's throwing the ball
straight up, but we think she's throwing it somewhat up and somewhat in the same direction she's moving. So now, although we
can't tell the exact path of the ball, we know the shape of its trajectory and its approximate direction.
Every single line has the same horizontal component to its velocity (to wit: the horizontal velocity the woman had, viewed from
outside the ship, the moment she threw the ball). This is the "run" of the slope of the lines we drew above. Then the steep lines
must have a very high "rise", because for these high-slope lines
rise
run
is a big number. Those trajectories result whe she hurls the
ball as hard as she can. As she throws it harder and harder, the horizontal velocity becomes less and less important, and the
trajectory is nearly a straight line through the center and to the other side of the ship. However, no matter how hard she throws it,
if she throws it straight up it will not reach the dead center.
On the other hand, the lines that are short and mostly horizontal have a low slope, and this a low "rise". So they are trajectories
for tossing the ball gently. If she throws the ball gently, it comes back to the wall quickly. (We are assuming, for simplicity, that
she throws the ball from height zero, just at the floor of the ship. For any given velocity of throwing the ball, this becomes a
better and better approximation as the size of the ship goes to infinity).
Suppose we had one more bit of information: the closest the ball gets to the center of the ship (for example,
1
2
way). Then we
could draw the locus of all points that particular distance from the center (a circle). One of our possible solutions will be tangent
to that circle. That would then be the path of the ball.
We now know the path of the ball from outside the ship: a line tangent to some circle or other. But we want the trajectory as seen
by the woman herself. From her own point of view she is stationary, but from ours she is twirling around the edge of the circle at
the same time the ball is floating through space. They're going in the same direction, so maybe she catches up to the ball and it
lands right in her hands? Or does it land in front of her, or behind? Maybe it depends on the initial conditions?
The answer is that the ball lands in front of her. To see this, first imagine she really wings the ball as hard as she can. Then it
flies across the spaceship in just a brief moment. Since it takes such a short time to get there, from our frame the woman has only
rotated a small distance, and the ball lands way out in front of her. This doesn't mean that the ball always has to land in front of
her, but at least for large initial velocities, it does.
Next, imagine she throws the ball very lightly. The ball follows a very short chord. But in the limit as a chord get shorter, its
length converges to that of the arc it subtends. So the distance the ball travels and the distance the woman would have to travel to
catch it converge in this limit. Also, because the horizontal drift speed shared by the woman and the ball is much greater than the
vertical speed of her weak toss, the ball and woman have almost the same velocity. Same distance to travel and same velocity
mean that, in this limit, the ball comes closer and closer to landing right back in her hands.
It's reasonable to assume that the position where the ball lands relative to the woman is a continuous function of how hard she
throws it. It is also reasonable to guess that as she throws the ball harder and harder, the distance in front of her that it lands rises
smoothly (although not necessarily linearly) from zero to half the diameter of the ship.
Plan of Attack
The woman is accelerating, so we can't use Newton's laws in her frame. Instead, we'll transform her coordinates into a an inertial
frame, in which the spaceship rotates. Although the circular spaceship lends itself to a description by polar coordinates, we'll use
Cartesian because the trajectory of the ball will be in a straight line in the inertial frame. Cartesian coordinates allow a straight-
line trajectory to have an especially simple algebraic form (also linear. Compare to the general equation for a straight line in
polar coordinates.)
It'll be a cinch to calculate the ball's trajectory in the inertial frame. Then we simply take that solution and transform it back to
the rotating frame and we know exactly what the woman in the spaceship sees.
Setup
Let the rotating (ship) frame be the "barred" frame (instead of "primed" frame, since the primes start looking like derivatives),
and the inertial (distant stars) frame be the "unbarred" frame. The first thing we need is the transformation equations between
them.
The barred frame is rotating at angular frequency Ω with respect to the unbarred frame. So their angular displacement is just Ωt
+ Θ
0
. We'll set up the coordinates so they coincide at t=0, so that Θ
0
= 0. We derived the tranformation for a rotation earlier in the
course. It is:
x = x cos(Ωt) + y sin(Ωt)
y = -x sin(Ωt) + y cos(Ωt)
t

= t
To go from barred coordinates to unbarred, we just rotate in the opposite direction, Ωt -Ωt. This leaves the cosines unchanged
(it's an even function) but switches the sign of the sines.
x = x cos(Ωt) - y sin(Ωt)
y = x sin(Ωt) + y cos(Ωt)
2 rot at ing s hip. nb
x = x cos(Ωt) - y sin(Ωt)
y = x sin(Ωt) + y cos(Ωt)
Our knowledge is about the initial velocity of the ball in the barred frame, but we want to analyze it in the unbarred inertial
frame. Therefore, we also need the transformations for the velocities. To get them, just differentiate both sides with respect to
time (which, in the nonrelativistic limit, is universal).
x

= x

cos(Ωt) - x Ω sin(Ωt) - y

sin(Ωt) - y Ω cos(Ωt)
y

= x

sin(Ωt) + x Ω cos(Ωt) + y

cos(Ωt) - y

Ω sin(Ωt)
Solution
That describes the kinematics of the setup. Now we need to start solving the problem! We'll let the woman throw the ball when
she's at the "bottom" of the ship, on the y-axis at a distance R below the origin. The barred and unbarred coordinates are the
same at this event. They are (0, -R)
The barred velocity is some constant, v, in the y direction. Once we transform this velocity, we'll know what straight line the ball
follows in the unbarred frame. Plugging t=0 and the barred velocities (specifically, (0, v)) into the transformation equations gives
the initial velocity in the unbarred frame. It's a straightforward calculation, becaust the sine and cosine terms are all either one or
zero. The answer is:
x
0

= RΩ
y
0

= v
Perhaps we could have skipped right to the answer, since it's quite intuitive once we see it. The velocity in the y-direction is the
same, but the ball picks up the same x-direction velocity as the woman herself.
There are no forces acting on the ball, so to find its position at all times, we just integrate this velocity over time, and add on the
boundary conditions of where the ball started. We obtain:
x(t) = R Ω t
y(t) = -R + v t
Great, now we know the slope that we were wondering about in the heuristic! It's
v
RΩ
(as we could probably have guessed, with a
moment's reflection). How long until the ball strikes the wall again? The wall's location is specified by
x
2
+ y
2
= R
2
Plugging in and solving we get
(R Ω t
2
+ (-R + v t
2
= R
2
Ωt
2
+ 1 - 2
v
R
t +
v
R
t
2
= 1
t[(Ω
2
+
v
R

2
)t - 2
v
R
] = 0
This is a quadratic with two solutions - just as it ought to. One corresponds to t=0. The ball is at the floor there simply because
that's where it started. The second solution is more interesting. It is:
t =
2
v
R

2

v
R

2

Notice that to find the time of flight, I don't need to specify the velocity and radius independently. Only their ratio enters the
formula. This is certainly true for a more mundane problem such as rolling a bowling ball down a lane, in which case the time is
just the length of the lane divided by how fast you roll the ball. It turns out also to be true for the rotating spaceship. It's wasn't
obvious to me that this result had to hold here, or that it would continue to hold in similar situations (imagine the angular velocity
"spinning up" at a constant acceleration, for example), but it's pleasing to notice it once we've worked through a bit.
Also notice that as Ω goes to zero, the solution goes to t =
2R
v
. This means that if the ship were not rotating, the ball would go on
a straight line through the center of the ship. It would travel a distance 2R, at velocity v, and so the time we found is just
distance
velocity
.
Other limits worth checking are as the parameter
v
R
increases without bound, and as it goes to zero. As it increases, the solution
goes to the same
2v
R
as before. This means that if she throws the ball very hard, it goes almost through the center, as we predicted
in the heuristic. As the same parameter goes to zero, the time again goes to zero. This means that if she makes just a very weak
toss, the "artificial gravity" will pull the ball back right away. This is opposed to the situation when the spaceship does not rotate.
In that case a very small velocity would mean it takes the ball a very long time to cross the ship.
rot at ing s hip. nb 3
Notice that to find the time of flight, I don't need to specify the velocity and radius independently. Only their ratio enters the
formula. This is certainly true for a more mundane problem such as rolling a bowling ball down a lane, in which case the time is
just the length of the lane divided by how fast you roll the ball. It turns out also to be true for the rotating spaceship. It's wasn't
obvious to me that this result had to hold here, or that it would continue to hold in similar situations (imagine the angular velocity
"spinning up" at a constant acceleration, for example), but it's pleasing to notice it once we've worked through a bit.
Also notice that as Ω goes to zero, the solution goes to t =
2R
v
. This means that if the ship were not rotating, the ball would go on
a straight line through the center of the ship. It would travel a distance 2R, at velocity v, and so the time we found is just
distance
velocity
.
Other limits worth checking are as the parameter
v
R
increases without bound, and as it goes to zero. As it increases, the solution
goes to the same
2v
R
as before. This means that if she throws the ball very hard, it goes almost through the center, as we predicted
in the heuristic. As the same parameter goes to zero, the time again goes to zero. This means that if she makes just a very weak
toss, the "artificial gravity" will pull the ball back right away. This is opposed to the situation when the spaceship does not rotate.
In that case a very small velocity would mean it takes the ball a very long time to cross the ship.
We may also want to know things such as how high the ball rises, or how far out in front of the woman it lands. These questions
could be answered in the unbarred frame, but it will be easier to answer them in the barred frame. First, we need to take our
parametric trajectory and translate it back to the barred frame.
x = R Ω t cos(Ωt) + (-R + v t) sin(Ωt)
y = (-R + v t) cos(Ωt) - R Ω t sin(Ωt)
Let's first remember what these coordinates mean. y is how high above the woman's head the ball is. x is how far out in front of
her the ball is. To me, the first thing to check is whether or not x is always positive. We've predicted that the ball will land in
front of her, which means positive x. So x better be positive for the entire trajectory.
We can see that it is positive for small times by approximating the trig functions to first order. Then we get
x v Ω t
2
Which is positive and indicates that she observes the ball to accelerate away from her. Notice that the equation is the same as
that for a body under constant acceleration, or constant force. This force, which always appears in rotating frames, is known as
the Coriolis force. You can see for yourself that its magnitude is 2vΩm. It works only for an approximation at small times
because the Coriolis force involves v, which it is changing. So as the ball accelerates, its velocity changes, and hence so does the
Coriolis force, and the equation with constant acceleration in the x-direction no longer holds.
In the zeroth order approximation to the trig functions,
y -R + v t
This equation states that for small times, the ball moves straight up at the speed she threw it. To second order, we'll need to take
the first order term from the sine function and the second order term from the cosine function. You should get
y -R + v t -
1
2
RΩ
2
t
2
Again the ball is accelerating under a constant force. This time its magnitude is RΩ
2
. This is the expression for the acceleration
of an object in a circular orbit. It should be clear that really the woman is accelerating up towards the ball at this rate. But from
her point of view, the ball is accelerating down under the influence of another fictitious force. This one is called the centripetal
force.
Now we understand the fictitious forces acting on the ball. If we had known them to begin with, we would never have needed to
go into an inertial frame to calculate the trajectory. We could have done it all right from the rotating frame, as long as we had
pretended that the ball had a Coriolis force 2Ωvm acting perpendicular to its motion, and a centripetal force RΩ
2
m acting to push
it out from the center. Also note that because these fictitious forces don't come from anywhere (they are purely kinematical
bookkeeping, not physical forces), they are not part of an action-reaction pair. Momentum and energy are not conserved in the
rotating frame. The Coriolis force is actually conservative because it is always perpendicular to the motion, but the centripetal
force is not.
4 rot at ing s hip. nb
Now we understand the fictitious forces acting on the ball. If we had known them to begin with, we would never have needed to
go into an inertial frame to calculate the trajectory. We could have done it all right from the rotating frame, as long as we had
pretended that the ball had a Coriolis force 2Ωvm acting perpendicular to its motion, and a centripetal force RΩ
2
m acting to push
it out from the center. Also note that because these fictitious forces don't come from anywhere (they are purely kinematical
bookkeeping, not physical forces), they are not part of an action-reaction pair. Momentum and energy are not conserved in the
rotating frame. The Coriolis force is actually conservative because it is always perpendicular to the motion, but the centripetal
force is not.
How close does the ball come to the center of the spaceship? To do this, we need to find r

, the distance between the ball and the
center of the ship, in terms of x and y. (We could call it just "r" if we wanted, since it's invariant under rotations, and thus the
same in each frame.) Use the Pythagorean theorem. Some of the stuff cancels and we end up with this expression:
r
2
= x
2
+ y
2
= (RΩt
2
+ (-R + vt
2
It makes more sense to look at the ratio
r
R
, the percent of the way towards the center the ball is. This is:

r

R

2
= Ωt
2
+ (-1 +
v
R
t
2
Which again depends only on the ratio
v
R
instead of each variable independently. In fact the entire shape of the trajectory is
invariant with respect to scaling the velocity and radius proportionately. Just go back to the equations for x and y and divide both
sides by R. You'll see that
x
R
and
y
R
depend only on Ω and the ratio
v
R
.
We want the minimum radius. Differentiate with respect to time, set equal to zero, and solve. It's a bit more than I feel like
typesetting. If you're clever, you'll note that the ball should "go up" and "come down" for the same amount of time, because if
you were to run everything backwards in time, you'd see that the situation is symmetric. Then since we already know how long it
takes to go and and come down combined, you can divide by two and plug that directly into the formula for r. Regardless of how
you find the maximum height, your answer should be:

r
max
R

2
=

2

2

v
R

2
Finally, we should calculate how far ahead of the woman the ball is when it lands. What would be nice is to get this answer in
the form Θ(Ω,
v
R
), where Θ is the angular displacement between the woman and the ball as it lands. One approach would be to
plug the time when the ball lands into the equations for x and y, then use the resulting values to get Θ. Another would be to go
back to the inertial frame, use the (simpler) trajectory in that frame to find Θ, the angular coordinate of the ball as it lands, and
subtract the quantity (Ωt -
Π
2
), which is the angular coordinate of the woman. Both methods are straightforward but a bit messy. I
chose the second one. Here is the result:
Θ = arctan(

v
R

2

2
2Ω
v
R
) -
2Ω
v
R

2

v
R

2
+
Π
2
It doesn't look very pretty written out like that, but we can at least plot it.
rot at ing s hip. nb 5
Manipulate]Plot]ArcTan]
(v)
2

2
2Ω v
|
2Ω v

2
(v)
2

Π
2
, {v, 0, 4}|, {Ω, .1, 10}|

1 2 3 4
0.5
1.0
1.5
2.0
2.5
The vertical axis is the angular separation between the ball and woman when the ball lands. The horizontal axis is how hard she
throws the ball. If she tosses it lightly, comes back almost right where it started (but slightly ahead). If she chucks it as hard as
she can, the function always increases, but goes towards an asymptote of Π. This is just the behavior we already deduced.
We'll finish the section by plotting the full trajectory of the ball, as seen by the woman who threw it.
6 rot at ing s hip. nb
Manipulate[ParametricPlot[
{{Sin[w t](R v t) Cos[w t]w R t, Cos[w t](R v t) Sin[w t]w R t},
{R Sin[50 w t], R Cos[50 w t]}},
{t, 0, 2R v / (v^2 w^2 R^2)}], {w, .1, 1}, {R, 1, 10}, {v, .01, 2}]
w
R
v
1.0 0.5 0.5 1.0
1.0
0.5
0.5
1.0
I' ve set the parametric equations to stop just when the ball hits the wall. I also included three slider bars - angular frequency,
radius of ship, and velocity of the throw. Try increasing the velocity and radius simultaneously.
There are two curves shown. One is the trajectory of the ball. The other just a portion of the wall. You can see that as you
increase the velocity, the ball falls further and further down the wall. This is the frame inside the ship (the accelerated frame), so
the woman's position remains permanently at (0,-R).
rot at ing s hip. nb 7

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