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Roller Coaster

Physics 
Glossary For many people, there is only one reason to go to an amusement park: the roller coaster. Some people call it the "scream machine," with good reason. The history of this ride reflects a constant search for greater and more death-defying thrills.

How does a roller coaster work?
What you may not realize as you're cruising down the track at 60 miles an hour is that the coaster has no engine. The car is pulled to the top of the first hill at the beginning of the ride, but after that the coaster must complete the ride on its own. You aren't being propelled around the track by a motor or pulled by a hitch. The conversion of potential energy to kinetic energy is what drives the roller coaster, and all of the kinetic energy you need for the ride is present once the coaster descends the first hill..

Design a Roller 
Coaster

Once you're underway, different types of wheels help keep the ride smooth. Running wheels guide the coaster on the track. Friction wheels control lateral motion (movement to either side of the track). A final set of wheels keeps the coaster on the track even if it's inverted. Compressed air brakes stop the car as the ride ends.

Wooden or steel coaster: Does it make a difference?
Roller coasters can be wooden or steel, and can be looping or nonlooping. You'll notice a big difference in the ride depending on the type of material used. In general, wooden coasters are nonlooping. They're also not as tall and not as fast, and they don't feature very steep hills or as long a track as steel ones do. Wooden coasters do offer one advantage over steel coasters, assuming you're looking for palm-sweating thrills: they sway a lot more. Tubular steel coasters allow more looping, higher and steeper hills, greater drops and rolls, and faster speeds.

How did coasters come to be? Read more about their history.

     


 

"Amusement Park Physics" is inspired by programs from The Mechanical Universe...and Beyond.

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