Learning Objectives

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to do the following:

  • Describe the properties of projectile motion
  • Apply kinematic equations and vectors to solve problems involving projectile motion
Section Key Terms
air resistance maximum height (of a projectile) projectile
projectile motion range trajectory

Properties of Projectile Motion

Properties of Projectile Motion

Projectile motion is the motion of an object thrown (projected) into the air. After the initial force that launches the object, it only experiences the force of gravity. The object is called a projectile, and its path is called its trajectory. As an object travels through the air, it encounters a frictional force that slows its motion called air resistance. Air resistance does significantly alter trajectory motion, but due to the difficulty in calculation, it is ignored in introductory physics.

The most important concept in projectile motion is that horizontal and vertical motions are independent, meaning that they don’t influence one another. Figure 5.28 compares a cannonball in free fall (in blue) to a cannonball launched horizontally in projectile motion (in red). You can see that the cannonball in free fall falls at the same rate as the cannonball in projectile motion. Keep in mind that if the cannon launched the ball with any vertical component to the velocity, the vertical displacements would not line up perfectly.

Since vertical and horizontal motions are independent, we can analyze them separately, along perpendicular axes. To do this, we separate projectile motion into the two components of its motion, one along the horizontal axis and the other along the vertical.

A cannonball is sitting on a flat surface. Dotted lines show the projectile motion of a cannon ball. Dotted line A shows the ball dropping vertically. Dotted line B shows a curved path. Dotted line C shows the ball moving horizontally.
Figure 5.28 The diagram shows the projectile motion of a cannonball shot at a horizontal angle versus one dropped with no horizontal velocity. Note that both cannonballs have the same vertical position over time.

We’ll call the horizontal axis the x-axis and the vertical axis the y-axis. For notation, d is the total displacement, and x and y are its components along the horizontal and vertical axes. The magnitudes of these vectors are x and y, as illustrated in Figure 5.29.

A boy is kicking a soccer ball. A curved line shows the ball's motion. A right triangle is drawn with vectors using an x-y axis. The hypotenuse is labeled d, the vertical leg is labeled y and the horizontal leg is labeled x.
Figure 5.29 A boy kicks a ball at angle θ, and it is displaced a distance of s along its trajectory.

As usual, we use velocity, acceleration, and displacement to describe motion. We must also find the components of these variables along the x- and y-axes. The components of acceleration are then very simple ay = –g = –9.80 m/s2. Note that this definition defines the upwards direction as positive. Because gravity is vertical, ax = 0. Both accelerations are constant, so we can use the kinematic equations. For review, the kinematic equations from a previous chapter are summarized in Table 5.1.

Table 5.1 Summary of Kinematic Equations (constant a)

Where x is position, x0 is initial position, v is velocity, vavg is average velocity, t is time and a is acceleration.

Solve Problems Involving Projectile Motion

Solve Problems Involving Projectile Motion

The following steps are used to analyze projectile motion:

  1. Separate the motion into horizontal and vertical components along the x- and y-axes. These axes are perpendicular, so Ax=AcosθAx=Acosθ and Ay=AsinθAy=Asinθare used. The magnitudes of the displacementssalong x- and y-axes are calledxxandy.y.The magnitudes of the components of the velocityvvarevx=vcosθvx=vcosθandvy=vsinθvy=vsinθ, wherevvis the magnitude of the velocity andθθis its direction. Initial values are denoted with a subscript 0.
  2. Treat the motion as two independent one-dimensional motions, one horizontal and the other vertical. The kinematic equations for horizontal and vertical motion take the following forms
    Horizontal Motion(ax=0)x=x0+vxtvx=v0x=vx=velocity  is a constant.Horizontal Motion(ax=0)x=x0+vxtvx=v0x=vx=velocity  is a constant.
    Vertical motion (assuming positive is upay=g=9.80 m/s2ay=g=9.80 m/s2)
  3. Solve for the unknowns in the two separate motions (one horizontal and one vertical). Note that the only common variable between the motions is timett. The problem solving procedures here are the same as for one-dimensional kinematics.
  4. Recombine the two motions to find the total displacementssand velocityvv. We can use the analytical method of vector addition, which usesA=Ax2+Ay2A=Ax2+Ay2andθ=tan1(Ay/Ax)θ=tan1(Ay/Ax)to find the magnitude and direction of the total displacement and velocity.
    θθis the direction of the displacementdd, andθvθvis the direction of the velocityvv. (See Figure 5.30
    Four related diagrams of projectile motion are show, a, b, c, and d. Diagram a shows two-dimensional curved motion, vx and vy, along an x-y axis and includes the formulas V y equals negative V oy and angle equals negative angle o. Diagram b shows horizontal motion, vx. Diagram c shows upward and downward vertical velocity, vy. And diagram d shows the combination of vx, vy, and v, forming a right triangle.
    Figure 5.30 (a) We analyze two-dimensional projectile motion by breaking it into two independent one-dimensional motions along the vertical and horizontal axes. (b) The horizontal motion is simple, because ax=0 ax=0and vx vxis thus constant. (c) The velocity in the vertical direction begins to decrease as the object rises; at its highest point, the vertical velocity is zero. As the object falls towards the Earth again, the vertical velocity increases again in magnitude but points in the opposite direction to the initial vertical velocity. (d) The x- and y-motions are recombined to give the total velocity at any given point on the trajectory.

Tips For Success

For problems of projectile motion, it is important to set up a coordinate system. The first step is to choose an initial position for xx and yy. Usually, it is simplest to set the initial position of the object so that x0=0x0=0 and y0=0y0=0.

Watch Physics

Projectile at an Angle

This video presents an example of finding the displacement (or range) of a projectile launched at an angle. It also reviews basic trigonometry for finding the sine, cosine and tangent of an angle.

Grasp Check
Assume the ground is uniformly level. If the horizontal component a projectile's velocity is doubled, but the vertical component is unchanged, what is the effect on the time of flight?
  1. The time to reach the ground would remain the same since the vertical component is unchanged.
  2. The time to reach the ground would remain the same since the vertical component of the velocity also gets doubled.
  3. The time to reach the ground would be halved since the horizontal component of the velocity is doubled.
  4. The time to reach the ground would be doubled since the horizontal component of the velocity is doubled.

Worked Example

A Fireworks Projectile Explodes High and Away

During a fireworks display like the one illustrated in Figure 5.31, a shell is shot into the air with an initial speed of 70.0 m/s at an angle of 75° above the horizontal. The fuse is timed to ignite the shell just as it reaches its highest point above the ground. (a) Calculate the height at which the shell explodes. (b) How much time passed between the launch of the shell and the explosion? (c) What is the horizontal displacement of the shell when it explodes?

The diagram shows the trajectory of a fireworks shell. An x-axis is labeled x, a y-axis is labeled h, and a vector, labeled V o, points upward from the axis origin. An angle is formed by the vector and the x-axis with a measure of seventy-five degrees.
Figure 5.31 The diagram shows the trajectory of a fireworks shell.


The motion can be broken into horizontal and vertical motions in whichax=0ax=0and ay=g ay=g. We can then definex0x0andy0y0to be zero and solve for the maximum height.

Solution for (a)

By height we mean the altitude or vertical position yyabove the starting point. The highest point in any trajectory, the maximum height, is reached when vy=0 vy=0; this is the moment when the vertical velocity switches from positive (upwards) to negative (downwards). Since we know the initial velocity, initial position, and the value of vy when the firework reaches its maximum height, we use the following equation to findyy


Because y0y0and vyvyare both zero, the equation simplifies to


Solving for yygives


Now we must find v0yv0y, the component of the initial velocity in the y-direction. It is given by v0y=v0sinθv0y=v0sinθ, where v0yv0yis the initial velocity of 70.0 m/s, andθ=75θ=75is the initial angle. Thus,

v0y=v0sinθ0=(70.0 m/s)(sin75)=67.6 m/sv0y=v0sinθ0=(70.0 m/s)(sin75)=67.6 m/s

and yyis

y=(67.6 m/s)22(9.80 m/s2),y=(67.6 m/s)22(9.80 m/s2),

so that

y=233 m.y=233 m.
Discussion for (a)

Since up is positive, the initial velocity and maximum height are positive, but the acceleration due to gravity is negative. The maximum height depends only on the vertical component of the initial velocity. The numbers in this example are reasonable for large fireworks displays, the shells of which do reach such heights before exploding.

Solution for (b)

There is more than one way to solve for the time to the highest point. In this case, the easiest method is to usey=y0+12(v0y+vy)ty=y0+12(v0y+vy)t . Because y0y0is zero, this equation reduces to


Note that the final vertical velocity, vyvy, at the highest point is zero. Therefore,

t=2y(v0y+vy)=2(233 m)(67.6 m/s)=6.90 s.t=2y(v0y+vy)=2(233 m)(67.6 m/s)=6.90 s.
Discussion for (b)

This time is also reasonable for large fireworks. When you are able to see the launch of fireworks, you will notice several seconds pass before the shell explodes. Another way of finding the time is by usingy=y0+v0yt12gt2y=y0+v0yt12gt2, and solving the quadratic equation fortt.

Solution for (c)

Because air resistance is negligible, ax=0ax=0and the horizontal velocity is constant. The horizontal displacement is horizontal velocity multiplied by time as given by x=x0+vxtx=x0+vxt, where x0x0is equal to zero


where vxvxis the x-component of the velocity, which is given by vx=v0cosθ0.vx=v0cosθ0.Now,

vx=v0cosθ0=(70.0 m/s)(cos75)=18.1 m/s.vx=v0cosθ0=(70.0 m/s)(cos75)=18.1 m/s.

The time ttfor both motions is the same, and so xxis

x=(18.1 m/s)(6.90 s)=125 m.x=(18.1 m/s)(6.90 s)=125 m.
Discussion for (c)

The horizontal motion is a constant velocity in the absence of air resistance. The horizontal displacement found here could be useful in keeping the fireworks fragments from falling on spectators. Once the shell explodes, air resistance has a major effect, and many fragments will land directly below, while some of the fragments may now have a velocity in the –x direction due to the forces of the explosion.

The expression we found for yywhile solving part (a) of the previous problem works for any projectile motion problem where air resistance is negligible. Call the maximum height y=hy=h; then,


This equation defines the maximum height of a projectile. The maximum height depends only on the vertical component of the initial velocity.

Worked Example

Calculating Projectile Motion: Hot Rock Projectile

Suppose a large rock is ejected from a volcano, as illustrated in Figure 5.32, with a speed of25.0 m/s25.0 m/sand at an angle35°35°above the horizontal. The rock strikes the side of the volcano at an altitude 20.0 m lower than its starting point. (a) Calculate the time it takes the rock to follow this path.

A volcano is shown with labels illustrating the projectile motion of rock shooting out of the volcano. Vector v o equals twenty-five meters per second and points from the volcano opening upward. Vector v curves downward to the ground and forms an angle of thirty-five degrees with a horizontal plane at the height of the volcano opening. The distance between the horizontal plane and the ground is labeled as negative twenty meters.
Figure 5.32 The diagram shows the projectile motion of a large rock from a volcano.


Breaking this two-dimensional motion into two independent one-dimensional motions will allow us to solve for the time. The time a projectile is in the air depends only on its vertical motion.


While the rock is in the air, it rises and then falls to a final position 20.0 m lower than its starting altitude. We can find the time for this by using


If we take the initial position y0y0to be zero, then the final position is y=20.0 m.y=20.0 m.Now the initial vertical velocity is the vertical component of the initial velocity, found from

5.9v0y=v0sinθ0=(25.0 m/s)(sin35)=14.3 m/s.v0y=v0sinθ0=(25.0 m/s)(sin35)=14.3 m/s.

Substituting known values yields

20.0 m=(14.3 m/s)t(4.90 m/s2)t2.20.0 m=(14.3 m/s)t(4.90 m/s2)t2.

Rearranging terms gives a quadratic equation intt

(4.90 m/s2)t2(14.3 m/s)t(20.0 m)=0.(4.90 m/s2)t2(14.3 m/s)t(20.0 m)=0.

This expression is a quadratic equation of the format2+bt+c=0at2+bt+c=0, where the constants are a = 4.90, b = –14.3, and c = –20.0. Its solutions are given by the quadratic formula


This equation yields two solutions t = 3.96 and t = –1.03. You may verify these solutions as an exercise. The time is t = 3.96 s or –1.03 s. The negative value of time implies an event before the start of motion, so we discard it. Therefore,

t=3.96 s.t=3.96 s.

The time for projectile motion is completely determined by the vertical motion. So any projectile that has an initial vertical velocity of14.3m/s14.3m/sand lands 20.0 m below its starting altitude will spend 3.96 s in the air.

Practice Problems

If an object is thrown horizontally, travels with an average x-component of its velocity equal to 5m/s, and does not hit the ground, what will be the x-component of the displacement after 20s?
  1. 100m
  2. 4m
  3. 4m
  4. 100m
If a ball is thrown straight up with an initial velocity of 20m/s upward, what is the maximum height it will reach?
  1. 20.4m
  2. 1.02m
  3. 1.02m
  4. 20.4m

The fact that vertical and horizontal motions are independent of each other lets us predict the range of a projectile. The range is the horizontal distance R traveled by a projectile on level ground, as illustrated in Figure 5.33. Throughout history, people have been interested in finding the range of projectiles for practical purposes, such as aiming cannons.

Two trajectory diagrams are shown. Diagram a shows three trajectories that curve upward then downward. They are labeled as follows: thirty meters per second and ninety-eight point one meters; forty meters per second and one hundred sixty-three meters; fifty meters per second and two hundred fifty-five meters. Diagram b shows three trajectories that curve upward then downward. They are labeled as follows: fifteen degrees and one hundred twenty-eight meters; forty-five degrees and two hundred fifty-five met
Figure 5.33 Trajectories of projectiles on level ground. (a) The greater the initial speedv0v0, the greater the range for a given initial angle. (b) The effect of initial angleθ0θ0on the range of a projectile with a given initial speed. Note that any combination of trajectories that add to 90 degrees will have the same range in the absence of air resistance, although the maximum heights of those paths are different.

How does the initial velocity of a projectile affect its range? Obviously, the greater the initial speedv0v0, the greater the range, as shown in the figure above. The initial angleθ0θ0also has a dramatic effect on the range. When air resistance is negligible, the rangeRRof a projectile on level ground is


wherev0v0is the initial speed andθ0θ0is the initial angle relative to the horizontal. It is important to note that the range doesn’t apply to problems where the initial and final y position are different, or to cases where the object is launched perfectly horizontally.

Virtual Physics

Projectile Motion

In this simulation you will learn about projectile motion by blasting objects out of a cannon. You can choose between objects such as a tank shell, a golf ball or even a Buick. Experiment with changing the angle, initial speed, and mass, and adding in air resistance. Make a game out of this simulation by trying to hit the target.

Grasp Check
If a projectile is launched on level ground, what launch angle maximizes the range of the projectile?
  1. 0
  2. 30
  3. 45
  4. 60

Check Your Understanding

Check Your Understanding

Exercise 7
What is projectile motion?
  1. Projectile motion is the motion of an object projected into the air, which moves under the influence of gravity.
  2. Projectile motion is the motion of an object projected into the air which moves independently of gravity.
  3. Projectile motion is the motion of an object projected vertically upward into the air which moves under the influence of gravity.
  4. Projectile motion is the motion of an object projected horizontally into the air which moves independently of gravity.
Exercise 8

What is the force experienced by a projectile after the initial force that launched it into the air in the absence of air resistance?

  1. The nuclear force
  2. The gravitational force
  3. The electromagnetic force
  4. The contact force