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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: May 2018

4 - Momentum



So far we have viewed nature as if it were composed of ideal particles rather than real bodies. Sometimes such a simplification is justified—for instance in the study of planetary motion, where the size of the planets is of little consequence compared with the vast distances of our solar system, or in the case of elementary particles moving through an accelerator, where the size of the particles, about 10−15 m, is minute compared with the size of the machine. However, most of the time we deal with large bodies that may have elaborate structure. For example, consider the landing of an explorer vehicle on Mars. Even if we could calculate the gravitational field of such an irregular and inhomogeneous body as Mars, the explorer itself hardly resembles a particle—it has wheels, gawky antennas, extended solar panels, and a lumpy body.

Furthermore, the methods of the last chapter fail when we try to analyze systems such as rockets in which there is a flow of mass. Rockets accelerate forward by ejecting mass backward; it is not obvious how we can apply F = Ma to such a system.

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