September 1, 2008 Issue

Physics To Go 56 - Rotation/dark matter

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Physics in Your World

Hyperphysics: Centripetal Force image
image credit: Darron Spohn; larger image

Hyperphysics: Centripetal Force

This motorcycle's path is bent into a curve by 1) the force of friction, parallel to the road's surface, between the road and tires, and 2) the force perpendicular to the road's surface that the road exerts on the tires (assuming the track is banked--if the track is horizontal, friction provides the only inward force).  To see what happens when the track is vertical, see the New York Times article Defying Death (See: Wall of)....  For a summary of the physics of circular motion, take a look at Hyperphysics: Centripetal Force.

(This feature was updated on April 1, 2010.)

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From Physics Research

Rotation Curves image
image credit: John Vickery and Jim Matthes/Adam Block/NOAO/AURA/NSF; image source; larger image

Rotation Curves

This is NGC 3198, a spiral galaxy.  Astronomers originally assumed that most of the mass in this kind of galaxy was concentrated in the bright central region and, therefore, that the stars in the spiral arms moved in circular gravitational orbits--like the planets in the solar system.  But when astronomers measured how the stars move, they could not explain the rate of rotation based on the stars they could see in the galaxy ( Rotation Curves for results for NGC 3198). In particular, the mass of the stars was much too small to produce enough gravitational force to explain the observed rotation. They were forced to the conclusion that much of the mass in galaxies does not emit light (thus the name "dark matter").  

(This feature was updated on July 31, 2013.)

Worth a Look

Dark Matter

Imagine a universe where physicists understand only a small percentage of the matter in it--that's the situation today with the Missing Mass, one of the great unsolved questions in physics.  For a discussion of the observations that led to this challenging situation, visit the Wikipedia entry Dark Matter.

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