Non-uniform Circular Motion

Non-uniform circular motion is any case in which an object moving in a circular path has a varying speed. The tangential acceleration is non-zero; the speed is changing.

Since there is a non-zero tangential acceleration, there are forces that act on an object in addition to its centripetal force (composed of the mass and radial acceleration). These forces include weight, normal force, and friction.

In non-uniform circular motion, normal force does not always point in the opposite direction of weight. Here is an example with an object traveling in a straight path then loops a loop back into a straight path again.

This diagram shows the normal force pointing in other directions rather than opposite to the weight force. The normal force is actually the sum of the radial and tangential forces that help to counteract the weight force and contribute to the centripetal force. The horizontal component of normal force is what contributes to the centripetal force. The vertical component of the normal force is what counteracts the weight of the object.

In non-uniform circular motion, normal force and weight may point in the same direction. Both forces can point down, yet the object will remain in a circular path without falling straight down. First let’s see why normal force can point down in the first place. In the first diagram, let's say the object is a person sitting inside a plane, the two forces point down only when it reaches the top of the circle. The reason for this is that the normal force is the sum of the weight and centripetal force. Since both weight and centripetal force points down at the top of the circle, normal force will point down as well. From a logical standpoint, a person who is traveling in the plane will be upside down at the top of the circle. At that moment, the person’s seat is actually pushing down on the person, which is the normal force.

The reason why the object does not fall down when subjected to only downward forces is a simple one. Think about what keeps an object up after it is thrown. Once an object is thrown into the air, there is only the downward force of earth’s gravity that acts on the object. That does not mean that once an object is thrown in the air, it will fall instantly. What keeps that object up in the air is its velocity. The first of Newton's laws of motion states that an object’s inertia keeps it in motion, and since the object in the air has a velocity, it will tend to keep moving in that direction.

Read more about Non-uniform Circular Motion:  Applications

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