Momentum is an important quantity because it is conserved. Yet it was not conserved in the examples in Impulse and Linear Momentum and Force, where large changes in momentum were produced by forces acting on the system of interest. Under what circumstances is momentum conserved?

The answer to this question entails considering a sufficiently large system. It is always possible to find a larger system in which total momentum is constant, even if momentum changes for components of the system. If a football player runs into the goalpost in the end zone, there will be a force on him that causes him to bounce backward. However, the Earth also recoils —conserving momentum—because of the force applied to it through the goalpost. Because Earth is many orders of magnitude more massive than the player, its recoil is immeasurably small and can be neglected in any practical sense, but it is real nevertheless.

Consider what happens if the masses of two colliding objects are more similar than the masses of a football player and Earth—for example, one car bumping into another, as shown in [link]. Both cars are coasting in the same direction when the lead car (labeled ${m}_{2})$ is bumped by the trailing car (labeled ${m}_{1})\text{.}$ The only unbalanced force on each car is the force of the collision. (Assume that the effects due to friction are negligible.) Car 1 slows down as a result of the collision, losing some momentum, while car 2 speeds up and gains some momentum. We shall now show that the total momentum of the two-car system remains constant.

Using the definition of impulse, the change in momentum of car 1 is given by

where ${F}_{1}$ is the force on car 1 due to car 2, and $\mathrm{\Delta}t$ is the time the force acts (the duration of the collision). Intuitively, it seems obvious that the collision time is the same for both cars, but it is only true for objects traveling at ordinary speeds. This assumption must be modified for objects travelling near the speed of light, without affecting the result that momentum is conserved.

Similarly, the change in momentum of car 2 is

where ${F}_{2}$ is the force on car 2 due to car 1, and we assume the duration of the collision $\mathrm{\Delta}t$ is the same for both cars. We know from Newton’s third law that ${F}_{2}=\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}\u2013{F}_{1}$, and so

Thus, the changes in momentum are equal and opposite, and

Because the changes in momentum add to zero, the total momentum of the two-car system is constant. That is,

where ${p\prime}_{1}$ and ${p\prime}_{2}$ are the momenta of cars 1 and 2 after the collision. (We often use primes to denote the final state.)

This result—that momentum is conserved—has validity far beyond the preceding one-dimensional case. It can be similarly shown that total momentum is conserved for any isolated system, with any number of objects in it. In equation form, the conservation of momentum principle for an isolated system is written

or

where ${\mathbf{p}}_{\text{tot}}$ is the total momentum (the sum of the momenta of the individual objects in the system) and ${\mathbf{\text{p}}\prime}_{\text{tot}}$ is the total momentum some time later. (The total momentum can be shown to be the momentum of the center of mass of the system.) An isolated system is defined to be one for which the net external force is zero $\left({\mathbf{\text{F}}}_{\text{net}}=0\right)\text{.}$

Perhaps an easier way to see that momentum is conserved for an isolated system is to consider Newton’s second law in terms of momentum, ${\mathbf{F}}_{\text{net}}=\frac{{\mathrm{\Delta}\mathbf{p}}_{\text{tot}}}{\mathrm{\Delta}t}$. For an isolated system, $\left({\mathbf{\text{F}}}_{\text{net}}=0\right)$; thus, $\mathrm{\Delta}{\mathbf{p}}_{\text{tot}}=0$, and ${\mathbf{p}}_{\text{tot}}$ is constant.

We have noted that the three length dimensions in nature—*$x$*, *$y$*, and *$z$*—are independent, and it is interesting to note that momentum can be conserved in different ways along each dimension. For example, during projectile motion and where air resistance is negligible, momentum is conserved in the horizontal direction because horizontal forces are zero and momentum is unchanged. But along the vertical direction, the net vertical force is not zero and the momentum of the projectile is not conserved. (See [link].) However, if the momentum of the projectile-Earth system is considered in the vertical direction, we find that the total momentum is conserved.

The conservation of momentum principle can be applied to systems as different as a comet striking Earth and a gas containing huge numbers of atoms and molecules. Conservation of momentum is violated only when the net external force is not zero. But another larger system can always be considered in which momentum is conserved by simply including the source of the external force. For example, in the collision of two cars considered above, the two-car system conserves momentum while each one-car system does not.

# Subatomic Collisions and Momentum

The conservation of momentum principle not only applies to the macroscopic objects, it is also essential to our explorations of atomic and subatomic particles. Giant machines hurl subatomic particles at one another, and researchers evaluate the results by assuming conservation of momentum (among other things).

On the small scale, we find that particles and their properties are invisible to the naked eye but can be measured with our instruments, and models of these subatomic particles can be constructed to describe the results. Momentum is found to be a property of all subatomic particles including massless particles such as photons that compose light. Momentum being a property of particles hints that momentum may have an identity beyond the description of an object’s mass multiplied by the object’s velocity. Indeed, momentum relates to wave properties and plays a fundamental role in what measurements are taken and how we take these measurements. Furthermore, we find that the conservation of momentum principle is valid when considering systems of particles. We use this principle to analyze the masses and other properties of previously undetected particles, such as the nucleus of an atom and the existence of quarks that make up particles of nuclei. [link] below illustrates how a particle scattering backward from another implies that its target is massive and dense. Experiments seeking evidence that quarks make up protons (one type of particle that makes up nuclei) scattered high-energy electrons off of protons (nuclei of hydrogen atoms). Electrons occasionally scattered straight backward in a manner that implied a very small and very dense particle makes up the proton—this observation is considered nearly direct evidence of quarks. The analysis was based partly on the same conservation of momentum principle that works so well on the large scale.

# Section Summary

- The conservation of momentum principle is written
${\mathbf{p}}_{\text{tot}}=\text{constant}$or${\mathbf{\text{p}}}_{\text{tot}}={\mathbf{\text{p}}\prime}_{\text{tot}}\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}\phantom{\rule{0.25em}{0ex}}(\text{isolated system}),$${\mathbf{p}}_{\text{tot}}$ is the initial total momentum and ${\mathbf{\text{p}}\prime}_{\text{tot}}$ is the total momentum some time later.
- An isolated system is defined to be one for which the net external force is zero $\left({\mathbf{\text{F}}}_{\text{net}}=0\right)\text{.}$
- During projectile motion and where air resistance is negligible, momentum is conserved in the horizontal direction because horizontal forces are zero.
- Conservation of momentum applies only when the net external force is zero.
- The conservation of momentum principle is valid when considering systems of particles.

# Conceptual Questions

**Professional Application**

If you dive into water, you reach greater depths than if you do a belly flop. Explain this difference in depth using the concept of conservation of energy. Explain this difference in depth using what you have learned in this chapter.

Under what circumstances is momentum conserved?

Can momentum be conserved for a system if there are external forces acting on the system? If so, under what conditions? If not, why not?

Momentum for a system can be conserved in one direction while not being conserved in another. What is the angle between the directions? Give an example.

**Professional Application**

Explain in terms of momentum and Newton’s laws how a car’s air resistance is due in part to the fact that it pushes air in its direction of motion.

Can objects in a system have momentum while the momentum of the system is zero? Explain your answer.

Must the total energy of a system be conserved whenever its momentum is conserved? Explain why or why not.

# Problems & Exercises

**Professional Application**

Train cars are coupled together by being bumped into one another. Suppose two loaded train cars are moving toward one another, the first having a mass of 150,000 kg and a velocity of 0.300 m/s, and the second having a mass of 110,000 kg and a velocity of $-0\text{.}\text{120 m/s}$. (The minus indicates direction of motion.) What is their final velocity?

0.122 m/s

Suppose a clay model of a koala bear has a mass of 0.200 kg and slides on ice at a speed of 0.750 m/s. It runs into another clay model, which is initially motionless and has a mass of 0.350 kg. Both being soft clay, they naturally stick together. What is their final velocity?

**Professional Application**

Consider the following question: *A car moving at 10 m/s crashes into a tree and stops in 0.26 s. Calculate the force the seatbelt exerts on a passenger in the car to bring him to a halt. The mass of the passenger is 70 kg.* Would the answer to this question be different if the car with the 70-kg passenger had collided with a car that has a mass equal to and is traveling in the opposite direction and at the same speed? Explain your answer.

In a collision with an identical car, momentum is conserved. Afterwards ${v}_{\text{f}}=0$ for both cars. The change in momentum will be the same as in the crash with the tree. However, the force on the body is not determined since the time is not known. A padded stop will reduce injurious force on body.

What is the velocity of a 900-kg car initially moving at 30.0 m/s, just after it hits a 150-kg deer initially running at 12.0 m/s in the same direction? Assume the deer remains on the car.

A 1.80-kg falcon catches a 0.650-kg dove from behind in midair. What is their velocity after impact if the falcon’s velocity is initially 28.0 m/s and the dove’s velocity is 7.00 m/s in the same direction?

22.4 m/s in the same direction as the original motion

- College Physics
- Preface
- Introduction: The Nature of Science and Physics
- Kinematics
- Introduction to One-Dimensional Kinematics
- Displacement
- Vectors, Scalars, and Coordinate Systems
- Time, Velocity, and Speed
- Acceleration
- Motion Equations for Constant Acceleration in One Dimension
- Problem-Solving Basics for One-Dimensional Kinematics
- Falling Objects
- Graphical Analysis of One-Dimensional Motion

- Two-Dimensional Kinematics
- Dynamics: Force and Newton's Laws of Motion
- Introduction to Dynamics: Newton’s Laws of Motion
- Development of Force Concept
- Newton’s First Law of Motion: Inertia
- Newton’s Second Law of Motion: Concept of a System
- Newton’s Third Law of Motion: Symmetry in Forces
- Normal, Tension, and Other Examples of Forces
- Problem-Solving Strategies
- Further Applications of Newton’s Laws of Motion
- Extended Topic: The Four Basic Forces—An Introduction

- Further Applications of Newton's Laws: Friction, Drag, and Elasticity
- Uniform Circular Motion and Gravitation
- Work, Energy, and Energy Resources
- Linear Momentum and Collisions
- Statics and Torque
- Rotational Motion and Angular Momentum
- Introduction to Rotational Motion and Angular Momentum
- Angular Acceleration
- Kinematics of Rotational Motion
- Dynamics of Rotational Motion: Rotational Inertia
- Rotational Kinetic Energy: Work and Energy Revisited
- Angular Momentum and Its Conservation
- Collisions of Extended Bodies in Two Dimensions
- Gyroscopic Effects: Vector Aspects of Angular Momentum

- Fluid Statics
- Fluid Dynamics and Its Biological and Medical Applications
- Introduction to Fluid Dynamics and Its Biological and Medical Applications
- Flow Rate and Its Relation to Velocity
- Bernoulli’s Equation
- The Most General Applications of Bernoulli’s Equation
- Viscosity and Laminar Flow; Poiseuille’s Law
- The Onset of Turbulence
- Motion of an Object in a Viscous Fluid
- Molecular Transport Phenomena: Diffusion, Osmosis, and Related Processes

- Temperature, Kinetic Theory, and the Gas Laws
- Heat and Heat Transfer Methods
- Thermodynamics
- Introduction to Thermodynamics
- The First Law of Thermodynamics
- The First Law of Thermodynamics and Some Simple Processes
- Introduction to the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Heat Engines and Their Efficiency
- Carnot’s Perfect Heat Engine: The Second Law of Thermodynamics Restated
- Applications of Thermodynamics: Heat Pumps and Refrigerators
- Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics: Disorder and the Unavailability of Energy
- Statistical Interpretation of Entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics: The Underlying Explanation

- Oscillatory Motion and Waves
- Introduction to Oscillatory Motion and Waves
- Hooke’s Law: Stress and Strain Revisited
- Period and Frequency in Oscillations
- Simple Harmonic Motion: A Special Periodic Motion
- The Simple Pendulum
- Energy and the Simple Harmonic Oscillator
- Uniform Circular Motion and Simple Harmonic Motion
- Damped Harmonic Motion
- Forced Oscillations and Resonance
- Waves
- Superposition and Interference
- Energy in Waves: Intensity

- Physics of Hearing
- Electric Charge and Electric Field
- Introduction to Electric Charge and Electric Field
- Static Electricity and Charge: Conservation of Charge
- Conductors and Insulators
- Coulomb’s Law
- Electric Field: Concept of a Field Revisited
- Electric Field Lines: Multiple Charges
- Electric Forces in Biology
- Conductors and Electric Fields in Static Equilibrium
- Applications of Electrostatics

- Electric Potential and Electric Field
- Electric Current, Resistance, and Ohm's Law
- Circuits, Bioelectricity, and DC Instruments
- Magnetism
- Introduction to Magnetism
- Magnets
- Ferromagnets and Electromagnets
- Magnetic Fields and Magnetic Field Lines
- Magnetic Field Strength: Force on a Moving Charge in a Magnetic Field
- Force on a Moving Charge in a Magnetic Field: Examples and Applications
- The Hall Effect
- Magnetic Force on a Current-Carrying Conductor
- Torque on a Current Loop: Motors and Meters
- Magnetic Fields Produced by Currents: Ampere’s Law
- Magnetic Force between Two Parallel Conductors
- More Applications of Magnetism

- Electromagnetic Induction, AC Circuits, and Electrical Technologies
- Introduction to Electromagnetic Induction, AC Circuits and Electrical Technologies
- Induced Emf and Magnetic Flux
- Faraday’s Law of Induction: Lenz’s Law
- Motional Emf
- Eddy Currents and Magnetic Damping
- Electric Generators
- Back Emf
- Transformers
- Electrical Safety: Systems and Devices
- Inductance
- RL Circuits
- Reactance, Inductive and Capacitive
- RLC Series AC Circuits

- Electromagnetic Waves
- Geometric Optics
- Vision and Optical Instruments
- Wave Optics
- Introduction to Wave Optics
- The Wave Aspect of Light: Interference
- Huygens's Principle: Diffraction
- Young’s Double Slit Experiment
- Multiple Slit Diffraction
- Single Slit Diffraction
- Limits of Resolution: The Rayleigh Criterion
- Thin Film Interference
- Polarization
- *Extended Topic* Microscopy Enhanced by the Wave Characteristics of Light

- Special Relativity
- Introduction to Quantum Physics
- Atomic Physics
- Introduction to Atomic Physics
- Discovery of the Atom
- Discovery of the Parts of the Atom: Electrons and Nuclei
- Bohr’s Theory of the Hydrogen Atom
- X Rays: Atomic Origins and Applications
- Applications of Atomic Excitations and De-Excitations
- The Wave Nature of Matter Causes Quantization
- Patterns in Spectra Reveal More Quantization
- Quantum Numbers and Rules
- The Pauli Exclusion Principle

- Radioactivity and Nuclear Physics
- Medical Applications of Nuclear Physics
- Particle Physics
- Frontiers of Physics
- Atomic Masses
- Selected Radioactive Isotopes
- Useful Information
- Glossary of Key Symbols and Notation