In physics, the center of mass of a distribution of mass in space is the unique point where the weighted relative position of the distributed mass sums to zero, or the point where if a force is applied it moves in the direction of the force without rotating. The distribution of mass is balanced around the center of mass and the average of the weighted position coordinates of the distributed mass defines its coordinates. Calculations in mechanics are often simplified when formulated with respect to the center of mass. It is a hypothetical point where entire mass of an object may be assumed to be concentrated to visualise its motion. In other words, the center of mass is the particle equivalent of a given object for application of Newton's laws of motion.
In the case of a single rigid body, the center of mass is fixed in relation to the body, and if the body has uniform density, it will be located at the centroid. The center of mass may be located outside the physical body, as is sometimes the case for hollow or open-shaped objects, such as a horseshoe. In the case of a distribution of separate bodies, such as the planets of the Solar System, the center of mass may not correspond to the position of any individual member of the system.
The center of mass is a useful reference point for calculations in mechanics that involve masses distributed in space, such as the linear and angular momentum of planetary bodies and rigid body dynamics. In orbital mechanics, the equations of motion of planets are formulated as point masses located at the centers of mass. The center of mass frame is an inertial frame in which the center of mass of a system is at rest with respect to the origin of the coordinate system.
The concept of center of mass was first introduced by the ancient Greek physicist, mathematician, and engineer Archimedes of Syracuse. Archimedes showed that the torque (turning force) exerted on a lever by weights resting at various points along the lever is the same as what it would be if all of the weights were moved to a single point — their center of mass.
Archimedes was the first person to work out ways of finding the center of mass in various objects.
Locating the center of mass
The experimental determination of the center of mass of a body uses gravity forces on the body and relies on the fact that in the parallel gravity field near the surface of the earth the center of mass is the same as the center of gravity.
The center of mass of a body with an axis of symmetry and constant density must lie on this axis. Thus, the center of mass of a circular cylinder of constant density has its center of mass on the axis of the cylinder. In the same way, the center of mass of a spherically symmetric body of constant density is at the center of the sphere. In general, for any symmetry of a body, its center of mass will be a fixed point of that symmetry.
In two dimensions
An experimental method for locating the center of mass is to suspend the object from two locations and to drop plumb lines from the suspension points. The intersection of the two lines is the center of mass.
The shape of an object might already be mathematically determined, but it may be too complex to use a known formula. In this case, one can subdivide the complex shape into simpler, more elementary shapes, whose centers of mass are easy to find. If the total mass and center of mass can be determined for each area, then the center of mass of the whole is the weighted average of the centers. This method can even work for objects with holes, which can be accounted for as negative masses.
A direct development of the planimeter known as an integraph, or integerometer, can be used to establish the position of the centroid or center of mass of an irregular two-dimensional shape. This method can be applied to a shape with an irregular, smooth or complex boundary where other methods are too difficult. It was regularly used by ship builders to compare with the required displacement and center of buoyancy of a ship, and ensure it would not capsize.
Engineers try to design a sports car so that its center of mass is lowered to make the car handle better. When high jumpers perform a "Fosbury Flop", they bend their body in such a way that it clears the bar while its center of mass does not necessarily clear it.
The center of mass is an important point on an aircraft, which significantly affects the stability of the aircraft. To ensure the aircraft is stable enough to be safe to fly, the center of mass must fall within specified limits. If the center of mass is ahead of the forward limit, the aircraft will be less maneuverable, possibly to the point of being unable to rotate for takeoff or flare for landing. If the center of mass is behind the aft limit, the aircraft will be more maneuverable, but also less stable, and possibly so unstable that it is impossible to fly. The moment arm of the elevator will also be reduced, which makes it more difficult to recover from a stalled condition.
For helicopters in hover, the center of mass is always directly below the rotorhead. In forward flight, the center of mass will move forward to balance the negative pitch torque produced by applying cyclic control to propel the helicopter forward; consequently a cruising helicopter flies "nose-down" in level flight.
The center of mass plays an important role in astronomy and astrophysics, where it is commonly referred to as the barycenter. The barycenter is the point between two objects where they balance each other; it is the center of mass where two or more celestial bodies orbit each other. When a moon orbits a planet, or a planet orbits a star, both bodies are actually orbiting around a point that lies away from the center of the primary (larger) body. For example, the Moon does not orbit the exact center of the Earth, but a point on a line between the center of the Earth and the Moon, approximately 1,710 km (1,062 miles) below the surface of the Earth, where their respective masses balance. This is the point about which the Earth and Moon orbit as they travel around the Sun. If the masses are more similar, e.g., Pluto and Charon, the barycenter will fall outside both bodies.
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