Learning Objectives

Learning Objectives

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

  • Discuss two-dimensional collisions as an extension of one-dimensional analysis
  • Define point masses
  • Derive an expression for conservation of momentum along the x-axis and y-axis
  • Describe elastic collisions of two objects with equal mass
  • Determine the magnitude and direction of the final velocity given initial velocity and scattering angle

The information presented in this section supports the following AP® learning objectives and science practices:

  • 5.D.1.2 The student is able to apply the principles of conservation of momentum and restoration of kinetic energy to reconcile a situation that appears to be isolated and elastic, but in which data indicate that linear momentum and kinetic energy are not the same after the interaction, by refining a scientific question to identify interactions that have not been considered. Students will be expected to solve qualitatively and/or quantitatively for one-dimensional situations and only qualitatively in two-dimensional situations.
  • 5.D.3.3 The student is able to make predictions about the velocity of the center of mass for interactions within a defined two-dimensional system.

In the previous two sections, we considered only one-dimensional collisions; during such collisions, the incoming and outgoing velocities are all along the same line. But what about collisions, such as those between billiard balls, in which objects scatter to the side? These are two-dimensional collisions, and we shall see that their study is an extension of the one-dimensional analysis already presented. The approach taken (similar to the approach in discussing two-dimensional kinematics and dynamics) is to choose a convenient coordinate system and resolve the motion into components along perpendicular axes. Resolving the motion yields a pair of one-dimensional problems to be solved simultaneously.

One complication that occurs in two-dimensional collisions is that the objects might rotate before or after their collision. For example, if two ice skaters hook arms as they pass by one another, they will spin in circles. We will not consider such rotation until later; so for now, we arrange things so that no rotation is possible. To avoid rotation, we consider only the scattering of point masses—that is, structureless particles that cannot rotate or spin.

We start by assuming that Fnet=0Fnet=0, so that momentum, p,p, size 12{p} {} is conserved. The simplest collision is one in which one of the particles is initially at rest (see Figure 8.14). The best choice for a coordinate system is one with an axis parallel to the velocity of the incoming particle, as shown in Figure 8.14. Because momentum is conserved, the components of momentum along the xx size 12{x} {}- and yy size 12{y} {}-axes (pxandpy)(pxandpy) will also be conserved, but with the chosen coordinate system, pypy is initially zero and pxpx is the momentum of the incoming particle. Both facts simplify the analysis. Even with the simplifying assumptions of point masses, one particle initially at rest, and a convenient coordinate system, we still gain new insights into nature from the analysis of two-dimensional collisions.

A purple ball of mass m1 moves with velocity V 1 toward the right side along the X direction. The orange ball of mass m 2 is initially at rest. The total momentum is the momentum possessed by purple ball only. After collision purple ball moves with velocity v 1prime in the positive X Y plane making an angle theta 1 with the x axis and the orange ball moves in the X Y plane below the x axis making an angle theta 2 with the x axis. The total momentum would be the sum of the momentum of purple ball p1 prime
Figure 8.14 A two-dimensional collision with the coordinate system chosen so that m2m2 size 12{m rSub { size 8{2} } } {} is initially at rest and v1v1 size 12{v rSub { size 8{1} } } {} is parallel to the xx size 12{x} {}-axis. This coordinate system is sometimes called the laboratory coordinate system, because many scattering experiments have a target that is stationary in the laboratory, while particles are scattered from it to determine the particles that make up the target and how they are bound together. The particles may not be observed directly, but their initial and final velocities are.

Along the x-axis,x-axis, size 12{x} {} the equation for conservation of momentum is

8.76 p1x+p2x=p1x+p2x,.p1x+p2x=p1x+p2x,.

where the subscripts denote the particles and axes and the primes denote the situation after the collision. In terms of masses and velocities, this equation is

8.77 m1v1x+m2v2x=m1v1x+m2v2x.m1v1x+m2v2x=m1v1x+m2v2x.

But because particle 2 is initially at rest, this equation becomes

8.78 m1v1x=m1v1x+m2v2x.m1v1x=m1v1x+m2v2x.

The components of the velocities along the x-axisx-axis size 12{x} {}have the form vcosθvcosθ size 12{v`"cos"`θ} {}. Because particle 1 initially moves along the x-x- size 12{x} {}axis, we find v1x=v1v1x=v1.

Conservation of momentum along the x-axisx-axis size 12{x} {}gives the following equation

8.79 m1v1=m1v1cosθ1+m2v2cosθ2,m1v1=m1v1cosθ1+m2v2cosθ2,

where θ1θ1 size 12{θ rSub { size 8{1} } } {} and θ2θ2 size 12{θ rSub { size 8{2} } } {} are as shown in Figure 8.14.

Conservation of Momentum Along the x-axis

8.80 m1v1=m1v1cosθ1+m2v2cosθ2.m1v1=m1v1cosθ1+m2v2cosθ2.

Along the yy size 12{y} {}-axis, the equation for conservation of momentum is

8.81 p1y+p2y=p1y+p2yp1y+p2y=p1y+p2y


8.82 m1v1y+m2v2y=m1v1y+m2v2y.m1v1y+m2v2y=m1v1y+m2v2y.

But v1yv1y is zero, because particle 1 initially moves along the x-axis.x-axis. size 12{x} {} Because particle 2 is initially at rest, v2yv2y is also zero. The equation for conservation of momentum Along the y-axis becomes

8.83 0=m1v1y+m2v2y.0=m1v1y+m2v2y.

The components of the velocities along the yy size 12{y} {}-axis have the form vsinθvsinθ size 12{v`"sin"`θ} {}.

Thus, conservation of momentum along the yy size 12{y} {}-axis gives the following equation

8.84 0=m1v1sinθ1+m2v2sinθ2.0=m1v1sinθ1+m2v2sinθ2.

Conservation of Momentum Along the y-axis

8.85 0=m1v1sinθ1+m2v2sinθ2.0=m1v1sinθ1+m2v2sinθ2.

The equations of conservation of momentum along the x-axisx-axis size 12{x} {} and y-axisy-axis size 12{y} {} are very useful in analyzing two-dimensional collisions of particles, where one is originally stationary (a common laboratory situation). But two equations can only be used to find two unknowns, and so other data may be necessary when collision experiments are used to explore nature at the subatomic level.

Making Connections: Real-World Connections

We have seen in one-dimensional collisions when momentum is conserved, that the center-of-mass velocity of the system remains unchanged as a result of the collision. If you calculate the momentum and center-of-mass velocity before the collision, you will get the same answer as if you had calculated both quantities after the collision. This logic also works for two-dimensional collisions.

For example, consider two cars of equal mass. Car A is driving east (+x-direction) with a speed of 40 m/s. Car B is driving north (+y-direction) with a speed of 80 m/s. What is the velocity of the center-of-mass of this system before and after an inelastic collision in which the cars move together as one mass after the collision?

Because both cars have equal mass, the center-of-mass velocity components are the average of the components of the individual velocities before the collision. The x-component of the center of mass velocity is 20 m/s, and the y-component is 40 m/s.

Using momentum conservation for the collision in both the x-component and y-component yields similar answers.

8.86 m(40)+m(0)=(2m)vfinal(x)m(40)+m(0)=(2m)vfinal(x)
8.87 vfinal(x)=20 m/svfinal(x)=20 m/s
8.88 m(0)+m(80)=(2m)vfinal(y)m(0)+m(80)=(2m)vfinal(y)
8.89 vfinal(y)=40 m/s.vfinal(y)=40 m/s.

Because the two masses move together after the collision, the velocity of this combined object is equal to the center-of-mass velocity. Thus, the center-of-mass velocity before and after the collision is identical, even in two-dimensional collisions, when momentum is conserved.

Example 8.7 Determining the Final Velocity of an Unseen Object from the Scattering of Another Object

Suppose the following experiment is performed. A 0.250-kg object m1m1 is slid on a frictionless surface into a dark room, where it strikes an initially stationary object with mass of 0.400 kg m2.m2. size 12{ left (m rSub { size 8{2} } right )} {} The 0.250-kg object emerges from the room at an angle of 45.45. size 12{"45" "." 0°} {} with its incoming direction.

The speed of the 0.250-kg object is originally 2.00 m/s and is 1.50 m/s after the collision. Calculate the magnitude and direction of the velocity (v2(v2 and θ2)θ2) of the 0.400-kg object after the collision.


Momentum is conserved because the surface is frictionless. The coordinate system shown in Figure 8.15 is one in which m2m2 size 12{m rSub { size 8{2} } } {} is originally at rest and the initial velocity is parallel to the x-axis,x-axis, size 12{x} {} so that conservation of momentum along the x-andx-and size 12{x} {}y-axesy-axes size 12{y} {} is applicable.

Everything is known in these equations except v2v2 and θ2θ2, which are precisely the quantities we wish to find. We can find two unknowns because we have two independent equations: the equations describing the conservation of momentum in the x-andx-andy-directionsy-directions.


Solving m1v1=m1v1cosθ1+m2v2cosθ2m1v1=m1v1cosθ1+m2v2cosθ2 for v2cosθ2v2cosθ2 and 0=m1v1sinθ1+m2v2sinθ20=m1v1sinθ1+m2v2sinθ2 for v2sinθ2v2sinθ2 and taking the ratio yields an equation in which θ2 is the only unknown quantity. Applying the identity tanθ=sinθcosθtanθ=sinθcosθ, we obtain

8.90 tanθ2=v1 sinθ1v1cosθ1v1.tanθ2=v1 sinθ1v1cosθ1v1.

Entering the known values into the previous equation gives

8.91 tanθ2=1.50 m/s0.70711.50 m/s0.70712.00m/s=1.129.tanθ2=1.50 m/s0.70711.50 m/s0.70712.00m/s=1.129. size 12{"tan"θ rSub { size 8{2} } = { { left (1 "." "50" m/s" right ) left (0 "." "7071" right )} over { left (1 "." "50" m/s" right ) left (0 "." "7071" right ) - 2 "." "00" "m/s"} } = - 1 "." "129"} {}


8.92 θ2=tan11.129=311.312º.θ2=tan11.129=311.312º. size 12{θ rSub { size 8{2} } ="tan" rSup { size 8{ - 1} } left ( - 1 "." "129" right )="311" "." 5° approx "312"°} {}

Angles are defined as positive in the counterclockwise direction, so this angle indicates that m2m2 is scattered to the right in Figure 8.15, as expected—this angle is in the fourth quadrant. Either equation for the x-x- or y-axisy-axis can now be used to solve for v2v2, but the latter equation is easiest because it has fewer terms.

8.93 v2=m1m2v1sinθ1sinθ2.v2=m1m2v1sinθ1sinθ2.

Entering the known values into this equation gives

8.94 v2=0.250 kg0.400 kg1.50 m/s0.70710.7485.v2=0.250 kg0.400 kg1.50 m/s0.70710.7485. size 12{ { {v}} sup { ' } rSub { size 8{2} } = - left ( { {0 "." "250" kg"} over {0 "." "400" kg"} } right ) left (1 "." "50" m/s" right ) left ( { {0 "." "7071"} over { - 0 "." "7485"} } right ) "." } {}


8.95 v2=0.886 m/s.v2=0.886 m/s. size 12{ { {v}} sup { ' } rSub { size 8{2} } =0 "." "886" m/s"} {}


It is instructive to calculate the internal kinetic energy of this two-object system before and after the collision. This calculation is left as an end-of-chapter problem. If you do this calculation, you will find that the internal kinetic energy is less after the collision, and so the collision is inelastic. This type of result makes a physicist want to explore the system further.

A purple ball of mass m1 and velocity v one moves in the right direction into a dark room. It collides with an object of mass m two of value zero point four zero milligrams which was initially at rest and then leaves the dark room from the top right hand side making an angle of forty-five degrees with the horizontal and at velocity v one prime. The net external force on the system is zero. The momentum before and after collision remains the same. The velocity v two prime of the mass m two and the angle th
Figure 8.15 A collision taking place in a dark room is explored in Example 8.7. The incoming object, m1,m1, size 12{m rSub { size 8{1} } } {} is scattered by an initially stationary object. Only the stationary object’s mass, m2,m2, size 12{m rSub { size 8{2} } } {} is known. By measuring the angle and speed at which m1m1 size 12{m rSub { size 8{1} } } {} emerges from the room, it is possible to calculate the magnitude and direction of the initially stationary object’s velocity after the collision.

Elastic Collisions of Two Objects with Equal Mass

Elastic Collisions of Two Objects with Equal Mass

Some interesting situations arise when the two colliding objects have equal mass and the collision is elastic. This situation is nearly the case with colliding billiard balls, and precisely the case with some subatomic particle collisions. We can thus get a mental image of a collision of subatomic particles by thinking about billiards (or pool). Refer to Figure 8.14 for masses and angles. First, an elastic collision conserves internal kinetic energy. Again, let us assume object 2 m2m2 size 12{ left (m rSub { size 8{2} } right )} {} is initially at rest. Then, the internal kinetic energy before and after the collision of two objects that have equal masses is

8.96 12mv12=12mv12+12mv22.12mv12=12mv12+12mv22.

Because the masses are equal, m1=m2=mm1=m2=m size 12{m rSub { size 8{1} } =m rSub { size 8{2} } =m} {}. Algebraic manipulation (left to the reader) of conservation of momentum in the xx size 12{x} {}- and yy size 12{y} {}-directions can show that

8.97 12mv12=12mv12+12mv22+mv1v2 cosθ1θ2.12mv12=12mv12+12mv22+mv1v2 cosθ1θ2.

Remember that θ2θ2 size 12{θ rSub { size 8{2} } } {} is negative here. The two preceding equations can both be true only if

8.98 mv1v2cosθ1θ2=0.mv1v2cosθ1θ2=0.

There are three ways that this term can be zero. They are as follows:

  • v1=0v1=0: head-on collision; incoming ball stops
  • v2=0v2=0: no collision; incoming ball continues unaffected
  • cos(θ1θ2)=0cos(θ1θ2)=0: angle of separation (θ1θ2)(θ1θ2) is 90º90º after the collision

All three of these ways are familiar occurrences in billiards and pool, although most of us try to avoid the second. If you play enough pool, you will notice that the angle between the balls is very close to 90° after the collision, although it will vary from this value if a great deal of spin is placed on the ball. Large spin carries in extra energy and a quantity called angular momentum, which must also be conserved. The assumption that the scattering of billiard balls is elastic is reasonable based on the correctness of the three results it produces. This assumption also implies that, to a good approximation, momentum is conserved for the two-ball system in billiards and pool. The problems below explore these and other characteristics of two-dimensional collisions.

Connections to Nuclear and Particle Physics

Two-dimensional collision experiments have revealed much of what we know about subatomic particles, as we shall see in AP Physics 2 in Medical Applications of Nuclear Physics and Particle Physics. Ernest Rutherford, for example, discovered the nature of the atomic nucleus from such experiments.