Physics: Free Fall and Terminal Velocity

After a while of free fall, any object will reach and maintain a terminal velocity. To calculate it, we need a lot of inputs.

The necessary quantities are: the mass of the object (in kg), the gravitational acceleration (in m/s²), the density of air D (in kg/m³), the projected area of the object A (in m²) and the drag coefficient c (dimensionless). The latter two quantities need some explaining.

The projected area is the largest cross-section in the direction of fall. You can think of it as the shadow of the object on the ground when the sun’s rays hit the ground at a ninety degree angle. For example, if the falling object is a sphere, the projected area will be a circle with the same radius.

The drag coefficient is a dimensionless number that depends in a very complex way on the geometry of the object. There’s no simple way to compute it, usually it is determined in a wind tunnel. However, you can find the drag coefficients for common shapes in the picture below.

Now that we know all the inputs, let’s look at the formula for the terminal velocity v (in m/s). It will be valid for objects dropped from such a great heights that they manage to reach this limiting value, which is basically a result of the air resistance canceling out gravity.

v = sq root (2 * m * g / (c * D * A) )

Let’s do an example.

Skydivers are in free fall after leaving the plane, but soon reach the terminal velocity. We will set the mass to m = 75 kg, g = 9.81 (as usual) and D = 1.2 kg/m³. In a head-first position the skydiver has a drag coefficient of c = 0.8 and a projected area A = 0.3 m². What is the terminal velocity of the skydiver?

v = sq root (2 * 75 * 9.81 / (0.8 * 1.2 * 0.3) )

v ≈ 70 m/s ≈ 260 km/h ≈ 160 mph

Let’s take a look how changing the inputs varies the terminal velocity. Two bullet points will be sufficient here:

  • If you quadruple the mass (or the gravitational acceleration), the terminal velocity doubles. So a very heavy skydiver or a regular skydiver on a massive planet would fall much faster.
  • If you quadruple the drag coefficient (or the density or the projected area), the terminal velocity halves. This is why parachutes work. They have a higher drag coefficient and larger area, thus effectively reducing the terminal velocity.

This was an excerpt from the Kindle ebook: Great Formulas Explained – Physics. Mathematics, Economics. Check out my BEST OF for more interesting physics articles.

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