|MLA Citation:||Bloomfield, Louis A. "Centrifuges and Roller Coasters Home Page" How Everything Works 25 May 2018. 25 May 2018 <http://www.howeverythingworks.org/prints.php?topic=centrifuges_and_roller_coasters&page=0>.|
There is no true outward force acting on an object that's revolving around a center. Instead, that object's own inertia is trying to make it travel in a straight-line path that would cause it to drift farther and farther away from the center. The one true force acting on the revolving object is an inward one-a centripetal force. The object is trying to go straight and the centripetal force is pulling it inward and bending the object's path into a circle.
To get a feel for the experiences associated with this sort of motion, let's first imagine that you are the revolving object and that you're swinging around in a circle at the end of a rope. In that case, your inertia is trying to send you in a straight-line path and the rope is pulling you inward and deflecting your motion so that you go in a circle. If you are holding the rope with your hands, you'll feel the tension in the rope as the rope pulls on you. (Note that, in accordance with Newton's third law of motion, you pull back on the rope just as hard as it pulls on you.) The rope's force makes you accelerate inward and you feel all the mass in your body resisting this inward acceleration. As the rope's force is conveyed throughout your body via your muscles and bones, you feel your body resisting this inward acceleration. There's no actual outward force on you; it's just your inertia fighting the inward acceleration. You'd feel the same experience if you were being yanked forward by a rope-there would be no real backward force acting on you yet you'd feel your inertia fighting the forward acceleration.
Now let's imagine that you are exerting the inward force on an object and that that object is a heavy bucket of water that's swinging around in a circle. The water's inertia is trying to make it travel in a straight line and you're pulling inward on it to bend its path into a circle. The force you exert on the bucket is quite real and it causes the bucket to accelerate inward, rather than traveling straight ahead. Since you're exerting an inward force on the bucket, the bucket must exert an inward force on you (Newton's third law again). It pulls outward on your arm. But there isn't anything pulling outward on the bucket, no mysterious "centrifugal force." Instead, the bucket accelerates in response to an unbalance force on it: you pull it inward and nothing pulls it outward, so it accelerates inward. In the process, the bucket exerts only one force on its surroundings: an outward force on your arm.
As for the operation of a centrifuge, it works by swinging its contents around in a circle and using their inertias to make them separate. The various items in the centrifuge have different densities and other characteristics that affect their paths as they revolve around the center of the centrifuge. Inertia tends to make each item go straight while the centrifuge makes them bend inward. The forces causing this inward bending have to be conveyed from the centrifuge through its contents and there's a tendency for the denser items in the centrifuge to travel straighter than the less dense items. As a result, the denser items are found near the outside of the circular path while the less dense ones are found near the center of that path.
Note added: A reader pointed out that I never actually answered the question. He's right! So here is the answer: they use accelerometers. An accelerometer is essentially a test mass on a force sensor. When there is no acceleration, the test mass only needs to be supported against the pull of gravity (i.e., the test mass's weight), so the force sensor reports that it is pushing up on the test mass with a force equal to the test mass's weight. But once the accelerometer begins to accelerate, the test mass needs an additional force in order to accelerate with the accelerometer. The force sensor detects this additional force and reports it. If you carry an accelerometer with you on a roller coaster, it will report the force it exerts on the test mass at each moment during the trip. A recording device can thus follow the "g-forces" throughout the ride.
As far as how accelerometers work, modern ones are generally based on tiny mechanical systems known as MEMS (Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems). Their test masses are associated with microscopic spring systems and the complete accelerometer sensor resides on a single chip.
During his orbit, the astronaut feels weightless because all of his "pieces" are falling together. Those pieces don't need to push on one another to keep their relative positions as they fall, so he feels none of the internal forces that he interprets as weight when he stands on the ground. A falling astronaut can't feel his weight.
To prepare for this weightless feeling, the astronaut needs to fall. Jumping off a diving board or riding a roller coaster will help, but the classic training technique is a ride on the "Vomit Comet"—an airplane that follows a parabolic arc through the air that allows everything inside it to fall freely. The airplane's arc is just that of a freely falling object and everything inside it floats around in free fall, too—including the astronaut trainee. The plane starts the arc heading upward. It slows its rise until it reaches a peak height and then continues arcing downward faster and faster. The whole trip lasts at most 20 seconds, during which everyone inside the plane feels weightless.
Since the top of the first hill is the highest point on the track, it's also the point at which the roller coaster's gravitational potential energy is greatest. Moreover, as the roller coaster passes over the top of the first hill, its total energy is greatest. Most of that total energy is gravitational potential energy but a small amount is kinetic energy, the energy of motion.
From that point on, the roller coaster does two things with its energy. First, it begins to transform that energy from one form to another—from gravitational potential energy to kinetic energy and from kinetic energy to gravitational potential energy, back and forth. Second, it begins to transfer some of its energy to its environment, mostly in the form of heat and sound. Each time the roller coaster goes downhill, its gravitational potential energy decreases and its kinetic energy increases. Each time the roller coaster goes uphill, its kinetic energy decreases and its gravitational potential energy increases. But each transfer of energy isn't complete because some of the energy is lost to heat and sound. Because of this lost energy, the roller coaster can't return to its original height after coasting down hill. That's why each successive hill must be lower than the previous hill. Eventually the roller coaster has lost so much of its original total energy that the ride must end. With so little total energy left, the roller coaster can't have much gravitational potential energy and must be much lower than the top of the first hill.
It's then time for the riders to get off, new riders to board, and for a motor-driven chain to drag the roller coaster back to the top of the hill to start the process again. The chain does work on the roller coaster, investing energy into it so that it can carry its riders along the track at break-neck speed again. Overall, energy enters the roller coaster by way of the chain and leaves the roller coaster as heat and sound. In the interim, it goes back and forth between gravitational potential energy and kinetic energy as the roller coaster goes up and down the hills.
Whenever you accelerate, the various parts of your body can no longer follow their inertia; they must accelerate, too. This acceleration requires forces within your body and you can feel these forces. In fact, they make it feel as though a new type of gravity were acting on the parts of your body. You can't distinguish true gravity from the experience of acceleration because they feel exactly the same. The strength of this gravity-like experience depends on how fast you accelerate and it points in the direction opposite your acceleration. If you accelerate upward, as you do when an elevator first starts moving upward, this gravity-like sensation points downward and you feel extra heavy (the experience of "positive g's") If you accelerate downward, as you do when a rising elevator comes to a stop, this gravity-like sensation points upward and you feel unusually light (the experience of "negative g's") Since there is no fundamental limit to how rapidly one can accelerate, these positive and negative g's can become extremely strong and can easily feel stronger than the true force of gravity. However, when these gravity-like sensations become a few times stronger than gravity itself, they become difficult to tolerate. That's why elevators start and stop gradually and why the turns on roller coasters aren't too sharp.
At the bottom of the first hill, the roller coaster has very little gravitational potential energy left, but it does have lots of kinetic energy. The roller coaster also keeps moving, despite the absence of gravitational potential energy. You can view its continued forward motion as either the result of having lots of kinetic energy or a consequence of having inertia. Inertia is a feature of everything in our universe—a tendency of all objects to keep doing what they're doing. If an object is stationary, it tends to remain station. If an object was moving forward at a certain speed, it tends to keep moving forward at a certain speed. Inertia tends to keep the roller coaster moving forward along the track at a certain speed, even when nothing is pushing on the roller coaster. While the roller coaster will slow down as it rises up the next hill, its inertia keeps it moving forward.
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