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8: Linear Momentum and Collisions

We use the term momentum in various ways in everyday language, and most of these ways are consistent with its precise scientific definition. We speak of sports teams or politicians gaining and maintaining the momentum to win. We also recognize that momentum has something to do with collisions. For example, looking at the rugby players in the photograph colliding and falling to the ground, we expect their momenta to have great effects in the resulting collisions. Generally, momentum implies a tendency to continue on course—to move in the same direction—and is associated with great mass and speed.

  • 8.0: Prelude to Linear Momentum and Collisions
    Momentum, like energy, is important because it is conserved. Only a few physical quantities are conserved in nature, and studying them yields fundamental insight into how nature works, as we shall see in our study of momentum.
  • 8.1: Linear Momentum and Force
    The scientific definition of linear momentum is consistent with most people’s intuitive understanding of momentum: a large, fast-moving object has greater momentum than a smaller, slower object. Linear momentum is defined as the product of a system’s mass multiplied by its velocity. Momentum is directly proportional to the object’s mass and also its velocity. Thus the greater an object’s mass or the greater its velocity, the greater its momentum.
  • 8.2: Impulse
    The effect of a force on an object depends on how long it acts, as well as how great the force is. A very large force acting for a short time had a great effect on the momentum of the tennis ball. A small force could cause the same change in momentum, but it would have to act for a much longer time.
  • 8.3: Conservation of Momentum
    Momentum is an important quantity because it is conserved. Yet it appears to not be conserved in the previous exampless, where large changes in momentum were produced by forces acting on the system of interest. Under what circumstances is momentum conserved? The answer to this question entails considering a sufficiently large system. It is always possible to find a larger system in which total momentum is constant, even if momentum changes for components of the system.
  • 8.4: Elastic Collisions in One Dimension
    An elastic collision is one that also conserves internal kinetic energy. Internal kinetic energy is the sum of the kinetic energies of the objects in the system. Truly elastic collisions can only be achieved with subatomic particles, such as electrons striking nuclei. Macroscopic collisions can be very nearly, but not quite, elastic—some kinetic energy is always converted into other forms of energy such as heat transfer due to friction and sound.
  • 8.5: Inelastic Collisions in One Dimension
    An inelastic collision is one in which the internal kinetic energy changes (it is not conserved). This lack of conservation means that the forces between colliding objects may remove or add internal kinetic energy. Work done by internal forces may change the forms of energy within a system. For inelastic collisions, such as when colliding objects stick together, this internal work may transform some internal kinetic energy into heat transfer.
  • 8.6: Collisions of Point Masses in Two Dimensions
    One complication arising in two-dimensional collisions is that the objects might rotate before or after their collision. For example, if two ice skaters hook arms as they pass by one another, they will spin in circles. We will not consider such rotation until later, and so for now we arrange things so that no rotation is possible. To avoid rotation, we consider only the scattering of point masses—that is, structureless particles that cannot rotate or spin.
  • 8.7: Introduction to Rocket Propulsion
    Rockets range in size from fireworks so small that ordinary people use them to immense Saturn Vs that once propelled massive payloads toward the Moon. The propulsion of all rockets, jet engines, deflating balloons, and even squids and octopuses is explained by the same physical principle—Newton’s third law of motion. Matter is forcefully ejected from a system, producing an equal and opposite reaction on what remains.
  • 8.E: Linear Momentum and Collisions (Exercises)

Thumbnail: A pool break-off shot. Image used with permission (CC-SA-BY; No-w-ay).


  • Paul Peter Urone (Professor Emeritus at California State University, Sacramento) and Roger Hinrichs (State University of New York, College at Oswego) with Contributing Authors: Kim Dirks (University of Auckland) and Manjula Sharma (University of Sydney). This work is licensed by OpenStax University Physics under a Creative Commons Attribution License (by 4.0).