Rotation around a fixed axis

Sphere rotating around one of its diameters

Rotation around a fixed axis or about a fixed axis of revolution or motion with respect to a fixed axis of rotation is a special case of rotational motion. The fixed axis hypothesis excludes the possibility of an axis changing its orientation, and cannot describe such phenomena as wobbling or precession. According to Euler's rotation theorem, simultaneous rotation along a number of stationary axes at the same time is impossible. If two rotations are forced at the same time, a new axis of rotation will appear.

This article assumes that the rotation is also stable, such that no torque is required to keep it going. The kinematics and dynamics of rotation around a fixed axis of a rigid body are mathematically much simpler than those for free rotation of a rigid body; they are entirely analogous to those of linear motion along a single fixed direction, which is not true for free rotation of a rigid body. The expressions for the kinetic energy of the object, and for the forces on the parts of the object, are also simpler for rotation around a fixed axis, than for general rotational motion. For these reasons, rotation around a fixed axis is typically taught in introductory physics courses after students have mastered linear motion; the full generality of rotational motion is not usually taught in introductory physics classes.

Translation and rotation

An example of rotation. Each part of the worm drive—both the worm and the worm gear—is rotating on its own axis.

A rigid body is an object of finite extent in which all the distances between the component particles are constant. No truly rigid body exists; external forces can deform any solid. For our purposes, then, a rigid body is a solid which requires large forces to deform it appreciably.

A change in the position of a particle in three-dimensional space can be completely specified by three coordinates. A change in the position of a rigid body is more complicated to describe. It can be regarded as a combination of two distinct types of motion: translational motion and circular motion.

Purely translational motion occurs when every particle of the body has the same instantaneous velocity as every other particle; then the path traced out by any particle is exactly parallel to the path traced out by every other particle in the body. Under translational motion, the change in the position of a rigid body is specified completely by three coordinates such as x, y, and z giving the displacement of any point, such as the center of mass, fixed to the rigid body.

Purely rotational motion occurs if every particle in the body moves in a circle about a single line. This line is called the axis of rotation. Then the radius vectors from the axis to all particles undergo the same angular displacement at the same time. The axis of rotation need not go through the body. In general, any rotation can be specified completely by the three angular displacements with respect to the rectangular-coordinate axes x, y, and z. Any change in the position of the rigid body is thus completely described by three translational and three rotational coordinates.

Any displacement of a rigid body may be arrived at by first subjecting the body to a displacement followed by a rotation, or conversely, to a rotation followed by a displacement. We already know that for any collection of particles—whether at rest with respect to one another, as in a rigid body, or in relative motion, like the exploding fragments of a shell, the acceleration of the center of mass is given by

where M is the total mass of the system and acm is the acceleration of the center of mass. There remains the matter of describing the rotation of the body about the center of mass and relating it to the external forces acting on the body. The kinematics and dynamics of rotational motion around a single axis resemble the kinematics and dynamics of translational motion; rotational motion around a single axis even has a work-energy theorem analogous to that of particle dynamics.

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