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Analytical solution of curvilinear motion on an inclined plane

V. M. Shunyakov and L. V. Lavrik

Citation: Am. J. Phys. 78, 1406 (2010); doi: 10.1119/1.3483277

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Analytical solution of curvilinear motion on an inclined plane
V. M. Shunyakov and L. V. Lavrik
Lifshitz Academic College, Jerusalem 2308, Israel
共Received 8 October 2009; accepted 5 August 2010兲
The problem of rectilinear motion of a body on an inclined plane is well known, but attempts to
generalize this problem to two dimensions lead to difficulties, in particular, finding the trajectory of
a body under the influence of two forces. We offer a general method for solving this problem. The
method introduces a new auxiliary independent variable instead of time and a variable oblique-angle
basis replaces a rectangular one. An analogy is shown between curvilinear motion on an inclined
plane and the pursuit problem. © 2010 American Association of Physics Teachers.
关DOI: 10.1119/1.3483277兴

I. INTRODUCTION the pursuer, which has a higher speed, follows the pursued.
The problem is to solve the pursuer’s trajectory 共the “chase
Introductory physics textbooks discuss only the rectilinear trajectory”兲. The most general case is when the trajectory of
motion of bodies on an inclined plane. If the frictional force the pursued is arbitrary. The pursuit problem is relevant, for
is independent of the velocity of the sliding body, the solu- example, self-guided missiles or torpedoes for which meth-
tion is simple. Discussions of curvilinear motion on an in- ods from control theory and game theory are usually
clined plane are reserved for more advanced texts.1–4 In these applied.7
cases a body is treated as a point object subject to two forces, The pursuit problem has a long and noble history. One of
each of constant magnitude. Force F ជ 1 is the component of the first examples is Zeno’s one-dimensional problem of
the weight parallel to the inclined plane and is always in the Achilles and the Tortoise.8 Apparently, it was Leonardo da
direction of fastest descent. Force Fជ 2 is the frictional force, Vinci who first considered this problem in two dimensions.9
which changes its direction so that it always opposes the The first known solution for two dimensions belongs to
velocity. These problems usually require finding the final ve- Bouguer.6 Subsequently, the problem preoccupied the lead-
locity when the net force is zero, which allows a solution by ing mathematicians including Boole10 and Cantor. A review
elementary methods without involving differential equations. of two-dimensional cases has been given by Bernhart,11–13
Such a limitation, however, reduces the possibility of experi- and its generalization to three dimensions by Barton and
mental verification because in reality the friction coefficient Eliezer.14 This article examines only the simplest two-
changes from point to point. Thus, a more general approach dimensional case where the pursued moves rectilinearly, both
is required, from which we can calculate the components of the pursuer and the pursued have constant velocities, and the
displacement as a function of time. speed of the pursuer is ␭ times greater than that of the pur-
Two limiting cases are useful: When the frictional force is sued. The chase trajectory for such a case is well known,11,17
much smaller than that of gravity and when the frictional and results in certain cases can be obtained by elementary
force is much greater than the force of gravity. The first case methods.1,2,15,16
is similar to that of projectile motion, with the trajectory
being a parabola, and the effective acceleration is its projec-
tion on the inclined plane. In the latter case, the components
of the displacement are nonzero, the motion is rectilinear, III. A COMMON MATHEMATICAL FORMALISM
and the components are equally decelerated.
We now consider why the pursuit problem is relevant to
Due to difficulties with obtaining analytical solutions, the
the inclined plane problem. A body sliding on an inclined
problem of curvilinear motion on an inclined plane is usually
plane is subject to two forces. Force F ជ 1 is the sum of the
solved by employing numerical methods.5 This article offers
a general analytic solution to curvilinear motion of a point force of gravity and the normal force of the plane. It is con-
mass on an inclined plane that is subject to a constant fric- stant and directed along the line of fastest descent, the direc-
tional force. Section II reviews solutions to the problem of tion of which we will denote by OY, or
pursuit, and Sec. III shows that the differential equations for Fជ 1 = mg sin ␣eជ y , 共1兲
the pursuit problem are also suitable for describing motion
on an inclined plane. Section IV discusses elementary solu- where ␣ is the angle between the inclined plane and the
tions of these types of problems, and Sec. V provides a more ជ 2 is directed opposite to the
horizontal. The frictional force F
general method. Section VI discusses limited motion on an velocity of the body so that
inclined plane and the possibility of experimental verification
of the theory. Finally, Sec. VII discusses the case of weak Fជ 2 = ␮mg cos ␣eជ v , 共2兲
where ␮ is the coefficient of friction. We have


eជ v = . 共3兲
6 V
The classical problem of pursuit can be described as fol-
lows. There are two objects: A pursued body A and a pursuer The vectors eជ y and eជ v are not orthogonal. The sum of these
B. The pursued body moves along a given trajectory, while forces creates the acceleration

1406 Am. J. Phys. 78 共12兲, December 2010 © 2010 American Association of Physics Teachers 1406

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dV X
= g sin ␣共eជ y − ␭eជ v兲. 共4兲 Ffrict =  Mg cos
If ␭ is the ratio of the component of the gravitational force
and the frictional force, we obtain mg sin
␮ Ftot
␭= . 共5兲
tan ␣
In the pursuit problem, let ␭ be the ratio of the velocities
of the pursuer and the pursued, where the latter has velocity
V0. The pursued moves along OY, while the pursuer moves Fig. 1. The vector diagram of two forces, a velocity and a curvilinear tra-
toward the pursued. If RA and RB are the respective distances jectory on an inclined plane.
of the two bodies from the origin of the coordinate system
and RBA is the distance between them, then
dR and the pursued. The new variables are described by
= V0eជ y , 共6a兲
dt R0
ជ BA = R0␳ជ ,
R t=T , 共13兲
= − ␭V0eជ r , 共6b兲 where ␳ is the relative displacement. By making transforma-
dt tions similar to those that led to Eq. 共12兲, we obtain the
where similar result
ជ BA = Rជ B − Rជ A,
R RBA共0兲 = R0 . 共7兲 d␳ជ ␳eជ y + ␭␳ជ
= − 共eជ y + ␭eជ r兲 = − . 共14兲
dT ␳
The vector eជ r is defined in a similar way as the vector eជ v 关see
Eq. 共3兲兴, where relative distances play the role of velocities. The differences between Eqs. 共12兲 and 共14兲 are in the mean-
ing of the parameters and the sign of one of the terms on the
Rជ BA right-hand side.
eជ r = . 共8兲
RBA Before looking for their common general solution, we ex-
plore some interesting partial solutions that can be obtained
In the frame of reference of the pursued 共where the pursued without solving differential equations.1–4,15,16
is at rest兲, the motion of the pursuer is described similar to
that of a body on an inclined plane, in which velocity is
replaced by a relative distance and the two forces are re-
placed by two velocities. The pursuer approaches the pur- IV. SOME QUALITATIVE RESULTS
sued with the velocity A. Inclined plane: ␭ = 1
ជ BA
= − V0共eជ y + ␭eជ r兲. 共9兲 The components parallel to the inclined plane of the gravi-
dt tational force and the frictional force are equal in magnitude
and make an angle with one another. Hence, the initial ve-
It is convenient to introduce dimensionless variables. If we
locity of the body makes an angle with the line of fastest
adopt the initial velocity of the pursued V0 as the unit of
descent. Because the horizontal component of the frictional
velocity, then we can introduce units of time t0 and length ᐉ0 sliding force acts on the body, it gradually reduces the hori-
given by zontal component of its velocity to zero, and as time in-
V0 creases, the direction of the velocity approaches the line of
t0 = , ᐉ 0 = V 0t 0 l 0 = V 0t 0 . 共10兲 fastest descent. Figure 1 shows that projections of the net
g sin ␣
force on the directions of these forces are equal because
ជ , displacement Rជ , and time T
The dimensionless velocity U these two directions eventually coincide. At an arbitrary
become point on the plane, the sliding frictional force is equal in
magnitude to that of the component of the gravitational

ជ = ជ,
V r t force. Therefore, the tangential projection of their resultant
U , R T= , 共11兲
V0 l0 t0 force has the same magnitude as its projection on the direc-
tion of the fastest descent. Hence, when the magnitude of the
and the acceleration becomes a function of dimensionless total velocity decreases, its projection on the direction of the
parameter ␭, fastest descent increases by just as much. The sum of the
ជ ជ兲 magnitudes of this component and of the total velocity re-
dU 共− Ueជ y + ␭U
= − 共− eជ y + ␭eជ v兲 = − . 共12兲 mains constant throughout the duration of the motion be-
dT U cause its time derivative is zero,
Likewise, we may reduce to a dimensionless form the equa- d共U + Uy兲
tion of pursuit 关Eq. 共9兲兴. We let the initial relative distance R0 = 0, U + Uy = constant. 共15兲
be the unit of length and the velocity of the pursued V0 be the
unit of velocity. With these units, the unit of time is the time For late times, the body moves along the line of the fastest
necessary to cover the initial distance between the pursuer descent, with the frictional force directed opposite to that of

1407 Am. J. Phys., Vol. 78, No. 12, December 2010 V. M. Shunyakov and L. V. Lavrik 1407

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the component of the gravitational force down the incline.
Because these two forces balance one another, the motion
becomes uniform and rectilinear.
冓 冔dUy
=−1+␭ 冓冔 Uy
. 共21b兲

The angular brackets denote the time average 具a典

= 共1 / T0兲兰a共T兲dT. Because the acceleration is constant, the
B. The pursuit problem: ␭ = 1 average of the time derivative of the speed is the ratio of the
difference between the final and initial speeds to the total
The analysis in this case is similar. When both the pursued interval of time of motion. The final values U共T0兲 and Uy共T0兲
and the pursuer move with the same velocity, the length of are equal to zero because the body comes to rest. Therefore,
the vector connecting them 共the distance between them兲 de- we replace the average derivatives in Eq. 共21兲 by
creases for each second by the same magnitude as the pro-
jection of this vector on the direction OY.17 We can deduce
this result from Eq. 共14兲. We obtain for ␭ = 1 that
冓 冔dU
, 共22a兲

d共␳ − ␳y兲
=0 共16兲
冓 冔dUy
. 共22b兲

The ratio Uy / U = cos ␤, where ␤ is the angle between the

␳ − ␳y = constant ⬅ ␳0 . 共17兲 direction of velocity and the axis 0Y. It is the angle that leads
We express the variable ␳y as a function of ␳x by using Eq. to the fastest descent. Although the average value of Uy / U is
unknown, we can eliminate it from Eq. 共21兲 and express the
共17兲 and the relation ␳2 = ␳2x + ␳2y , ␳2 = 共␳y + ␳0兲2, which im-
time interval T in terms of the known parameters. In particu-
plies that lar, when the initial velocity is horizontal, that is, Uy共0兲 = 0, it
␳2x ␳0 follows from Eqs. 共21兲 and 共22兲 that this average ratio is
␳20 + 2␳y␳0 = ␳2x and ␳y = − . 共18兲 equal to ␭−1, and the time T0 necessary to stop a body on an
2␳0 2
inclined plane is
This result defines a parabola whose points are equally dis-
tant from the focus on the axis 0Y and the directrix that is a T0 = 0.5共共␭ − 1兲−1 + 共␭ + 1兲−1兲 = 0.5共T0↑ + T0↓兲, 共23兲
line parallel to axis 0X. Relative to the pursued, the pursuer where T0↑ is the time for the motion to stop when the same
moves along a parabola, and the pursued is fixed at the pa- initial velocity is directed upward rather than horizontally
rabola’s focus. Eventually, the pursuer reaches the point x and T0↓ is the time for when this initial velocity is directed
= 0, where the distance between the two is the minimum downward. For the pursuit case, an analogous result has the
共equal to the focal distance of the parabola兲. Thus, they will following interpretation. If the initial velocity of the pursued
never meet. We deduced this result by elementary methods is perpendicular to that of the pursuer, the first of the two
without obtaining the equation of motion. time intervals corresponds to the pursued moving away from
the pursuer, and the second corresponds to the pursued mov-
ing toward the pursuer.
C. Time of motion: ␭ ⬎ 1
For an inclined plane the frictional force is greater than the V. GENERAL SOLUTION
component of the gravitational force down the incline,1–4
which would make the body stop somewhere on the plane. The nonlinear equations 共12兲 and 共14兲 each consists of two
For the pursuit problem, the condition ␭ ⬎ 1 means that the dependent equations. To separate the two equations, we in-
velocity of the pursuer must be greater than that of the pur- troduce a nonorthogonal system of coordinates, as we did
sued, leading to an eventual “catching” of the latter. We can with Eqs. 共19兲 and 共20兲. We will also introduce the supple-
determine the time necessary for the sliding body to stop, or mentary independent variable ␾, defined by
for the pursuer to reach the pursued.16 We project Eqs. 共12兲
and 共14兲 onto two nonorthogonal directions marked by the d␾ 1
= 共24兲
vectors eជ y and eជ v 共for the inclined plane problem兲 or ey and eជ r dT U
共for the pursuit problem兲. In the former case, we obtain a
system of equations for the speed U and the component Uy, so that for the inclined plane problem, Eq. 共20兲 becomes

dT U
冉 冊冉 冊 冉 冊
dU Uy

Uy 1
U −␭
. 共19兲
d␾ d U y
dT d␾ U
冉 冊 冉
1 − Uy + ␭U
U ␭Uy + U
. 冊 共25兲

Likewise, for the pursuit case we have equations for the We now find a solution of Eq. 共25兲 in parametric form while
distance ␳ between the two bodies and its projection on OY, considering an independent variable. We may reduce Eq.

冉 冊 冉冊 冉 冊
共25兲 together with Eq. 共24兲 to a system of linear equations
d ␳y ␭ ␳y 1 with constant coefficients
冉 冊冉 冊冉 冊
=− − .
dT ␳ 1 ␳ −␭ d U −␭ 1 U
= . 共26兲
We now average the time for Eq. 共19兲, d␾ U y 1 −␭

冓 冔 冓冔
dU Uy The eigenvalues of this matrix are −共␭ − 1兲 , −共␭ + 1兲, and its
=␭+ , 共21a兲
dT U eigenvectors are U+ = 0.5共U + Uy兲 and U− = 0.5共U − Uy兲. As a

1408 Am. J. Phys., Vol. 78, No. 12, December 2010 V. M. Shunyakov and L. V. Lavrik 1408

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−1 −1
result, we can express the absolute value of the velocity and ␳y = 0.5␭关共␭ − 1兲␳1+␭ − 共␭ − 1兲␳1−␭ + 2兴共␭2 − 1兲−1 .
its components in terms of the variable ␾,
U共␾兲 = U+e共1−␭兲␾ + U−e−共1+␭兲␾ , 共27兲
Our method allows us to obtain not only known results
共1−␭兲␾ −共1+␭兲␾ that are related to the pursuit problem but also new ones, in
U y 共 ␾ 兲 = U +e − U −e , 共28兲
particular, for curvilinear motion on an inclined plane.
Ux共␾兲 = 2冑U+U−e−␭␾ . 共29兲
By using Eqs. 共24兲 and 共27兲, we can express the time as a
function of ␾, VI. LIMITED MOTION

T共␾兲 = 冕 U共␾⬘兲d␾⬘ . 共30兲

When friction is considerable and the incline angle ␣ is
small, then ␭ ⬎ 1, and the time t, the displacements x and y,
and the path length l are nonzero. In such a case,
Because U共␾兲 is always positive, the time is a monotonic

冢冣 冢 冣
function of ␾. According to Eq. 共11兲, U共0兲 = 1 and Uy共0兲 V 0t 共␭ + 1兲−1 + 共␭ − 1兲−1
= cos ␤, where ␤ is the angle between the axis 0Y and the x 共2␭ + 1兲−1 + 共2␭ − 1兲−1
initial velocity. We introduce a new auxiliary function = 0.5l0 . 共37兲
y 共4␭ + 4兲−1 − 共4␭ − 4兲−1
e p␾ − 1 l 共4␭ + 4兲−1 + 共4␭ − 4兲−1 + 0.5␭
Q共p, ␾兲 = . 共31兲
We consider two consequences.
Then 共1兲 A small body 共a coin or a ring兲 resting on an inclined
T共␾兲 = U+Q共1 − ␭, ␾兲 + U−Q共− 1 − ␭, ␾兲. 共32兲 plane at point A0共x0 , y 0兲 is briefly pushed horizontally. If
␭ ⬎ 1, the body will stop at some point A1共x1 , y 1兲. Let us
We see that T共0兲 = 0. Another consequence is that for ␭ ⬎ 1,
mark this point, return the body to A0, and push it again
the motion is limited, and for ␭ ⬍ 1, the motion is unlimited.
horizontally. Most probably, the new velocity will differ
In a similar way, we can represent the displacements x and y
from the original one, and thus, the body will stop at
as functions of ␾,
point A2共x2 , y 2兲. According to our theory, if we repeat
x共␾兲 = l0关U+共0兲Q共1 − 2␭, ␾兲 + U−共0兲Q共− 1 − 2␭, ␾兲兴, this procedure many times, the set of points Am共xm , y m兲
共33a兲 will form a straight line, whose equation as deduced
from Eq. 共38兲 is
y共␾兲 = l0关U+共0兲Q共2 − 2␭, ␾兲 + U−共0兲Q共− 2 − 2␭, ␾兲兴. 2␭2 − 1
共33b兲 y = Bx = x. 共38兲
2␭共␭2 − 1兲
If ␭ ⬎ 1, the displacement is limited both in the horizontal
direction and the direction of descent. If ␭ ⬍ 1, the motion is If we determine B experimentally and solve Eq. 共39兲 for ␭,
unlimited along the descent, that is, the body will never stop we will find the coefficient of friction. An experimental con-
on the inclined plane. The situation is more complicated in firmation that points Am make a straight line would support
the horizontal direction. In particular, if ␭ ⬍ 0.5, the horizon- our model based on Eqs. 共2兲 and 共4兲. The main assumption in
tal displacement is unlimited. However, it is limited if this model is that the force of kinetic friction of a body does
0.5⬍ ␭, which means that the trajectory will approach not depend on its sliding velocity and is directed opposite to
asymptotically a straight line along the line of the fastest the velocity. This assumption predicts that all trajectories
descent, at a certain distance from the initial point depending have the same shape and differ only in scale. The scale de-
on the initial velocity and the coefficient of friction. The case pends on the initial velocity but not on ␭.
of small friction will be considered in greater detail in 共2兲 Let us assume that we have determined ␭ in the preced-
Sec. VIII. ing experiment, and we want to find out the scale for the
The pursuit problem may be considered in a similar way. length and the initial velocity of the body. We can do so
The case of the pursued moving rectilinearly and uniformly by causing the sliding body to leave a trace on the in-
was first solved by Bouguer.6 We can deduce the result from clined plane and measuring the path length along the
Eq. 共21兲. The solution of Eq. 共21兲 describes the position vec- trajectory. We find
tor of the pursuer Rជ BA in the reference frame of the pursued l0 V20
as a function of time. The solution looks similar to that in ␭l − y = = . 共39兲
2 2g sin共␣兲
Eqs. 共28兲 and 共29兲 for the velocity on an inclined plane. We
express ␳y in terms of ␳x, Equation 共39兲 has a simple physical interpretation. Initially
␳⬘y = 0.5共␳共1+␭兲/␭ − ␳共1−␭兲/␭ 兲. 共34兲 共after being pushed兲, the body’s energy E共0兲 is purely kinetic
x x
关if we assume y共0兲 = 0兴,
Equation 共35兲 provides the trajectory in the reference frame
of the pursued. By applying the Galilean transformation, mV共0兲2
E共0兲 = K共0兲 = . 共40兲
␳y = ␳⬘y + T, 共35兲 2
where the dimensionless time T is expressed by Eq. 共32兲, we When the body stops its energy is purely potential 共y is the
can derive the same result as obtained by Bouguer,6 path length along the line of descent兲,

1409 Am. J. Phys., Vol. 78, No. 12, December 2010 V. M. Shunyakov and L. V. Lavrik 1409

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E共T f 兲 = U f = − mgy sin共␣兲. 共41兲
The energy change is equal to the work of the force of fric-
tion Ffrict on the path length l along the line of descent OY,
+ mgy sin共␣兲 = ␮mgl cos共␣兲, 共42兲
which implies that ␭l − y = l0 / 2 and leads to Eq. 共39兲.


Fig. 2. The exact and asymptotic solutions for the time dependence of the
Let us examine in detail the trajectory of motion for 1 horizontal displacement.
⬎ ␭ ⬎ 0. If there is no friction 共␭ = 0兲, the horizontal motion
is uniform and the descent is accelerated with ḡ = g sin共␣兲.
The trajectory is a parabola. If the friction is small, the equa- power for 0 ⬍ ␭ ⬍ 0.5 changes into a logarithmic function at
tions for the displacement and velocity can be established ␭ = 0.5 and then back into a power function, but with nega-
only for long time intervals. The reason is the presence of tive power for 0 ⬍ ␭ ⬍ 0.5.14 For ␭ = 0.5, we have
exponential functions in Eqs. 共28兲, 共29兲, and 共33a兲, which
can be neglected when the time is large. In this way, we X共T兲 = 0.5 + 2 ln共T + 4/3兲. 共49兲
obtain the motion with a constant acceleration along the line We can obtain this result by considering the limit in Eq. 共47兲
of the fastest descent. The acceleration and “initial” velocity when 2␭ − 1 → 0. For ␭ − 1 → 0, the power law function
and coordinate depend on friction, changes to an exponential. Let us take the limit of Eq. 共47兲 at
geff = 共1 − ␭兲g sin共␣兲, 共43兲 ␭ = 1 by letting 1 − ␭ → 0. The result is
X共T兲 = 32 − 0.5 exp共− 2T兲. 共50兲
Vyeff = , 共44兲 Figure 2 shows that the shorter the time intervals, the greater
the difference between the exact function and the asymptotic
one. For instance, for T = 1, the difference is about 10, but for
l0共1 + 2␭兲
y eff = , 共45兲 T = 2, the difference is less than 1.
gefft2 The model used in this work, based on Eqs. 共2兲 and 共3兲, is
y共t兲 ⬇ + Vy,efft − y eff . 共46兲 idealized in several respects. One is the assumption of a par-
ticle, which implies that all points of the sliding body have
We see that after a large time interval, the forces F1 and F2 identical trajectories. This assumption is correct when the
begin to balance each other 共␭ = 1兲, and the motion becomes body moves rectilinearly. However, if the trajectory is a
uniform with the velocity equal to one-half of the initial curve, it is necessary to investigate whether we may assume
velocity. The horizontal displacement may be described for the same acceleration for all points of the body. Thus, it is
large time intervals by a power function. The solution is not clear whether this model is applicable for the sliding
−1C motion of a car on an incline or for a skier who descends
X共T兲 = A共共1 + C−1共T − D兲A 兲 − 1兲 + B, 共47兲 from a hill in a zigzag motion.
where T = t / t0, X = x / l0, and There is still no clear understanding of the nature of slid-
ing friction. The force of sliding friction is related to the

冢冣 冢 冣
A 共1 − 2␭兲−1 fundamental characteristics of materials,18 some of which
B 共1 + 2␭兲−1 also specify and generalize the frictional force.19 Feynman et
= 0.5 . 共48兲 al.20 pointed out that surfaces of solid bodies are heteroge-
C 共1 − ␭兲−1
neous, and thus the sliding frictional force changes from
D 共1 + ␭兲−1 point to point. For this reason, it is difficult to realize uni-
form motion by balancing the sliding frictional force20 with
Equation 共47兲 shows that when 0 ⬍ ␭ ⬍ 0.5, the horizontal
another given force. Nonetheless, a comparison of theoretical
displacement increases with time because the power C / A is
results obtained in this work with experiments may be useful
positive. As for zero friction, this horizontal motion is unlim-
for improving our understanding of sliding friction.
ited, but according to Eq. 共47兲, its velocity is slowly dimin-
ishing because the ratio C / A is smaller than unity. In con-
trast, when 0.5⬍ ␭ ⬍ 1, the power is negative and the ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
horizontal displacement approaches a limit, which coincides
The authors thank Nahum Kipnis for helpful discussions
with the final displacement equation 共39兲 for 1 ⬍ ␭.
and critical comments on the article and Alejandro Gonzales
For ␭ = 0.5 and ␭ = 1, Eq. 共47兲 contains singularities. The
for useful discussions.
point ␭ = 0.5 separates the parametric area of unlimited hori-
zontal motion 共for which 0 ⬍ ␭ ⬍ 0.5兲 from the range of lim-
ited motion 共0.5⬍ ␭ ⬍ 1兲. The power function with a positive 1
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