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Homework Help: Simple Vector Question Related to Conservation of Momentum

  1. Sep 3, 2012 #1
    1. The problem statement, all variables and given/known data
    A spaceship of mass M is traveling in deep space with velocity vi = 20 km/s relative to the Sun. It ejects a rear stage of mass 0.2 M with a relative speed u = 5 km/s. What then is the velocity of the spaceship?

    2. Relevant equations
    conservation of momentum, p = mv

    let U be the velocity of the ejected rear stage and vf be the velocity of the ship after ejection.

    3. The attempt at a solution
    pi = Mvi
    pf = 0.2MU + 0.8Mvf

    it's an example from the book and the next thing they do is say "The speed u of the ejected stage relative to the spaceship is the difference in velocities of the spaceship and stage"

    u = vf - U


    U = vf - u

    basically, I am feeling really dumb for not understanding why u = vf - U. The example also states that the positive direction is in the direction of vi. If that's so, then shouldn't ube negative? I think I'm thinking about this too hard and have confused myself.
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 3, 2012 #2


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    Homework Helper

    Relative velocity with respect to the spaceship can be understood as velocity relative to the final velocity vf. The relative speed of the rear stage with respect to the spaceship is u=5 m/s. The speed is positive, as it is the magnitude of velocity. The relative velocity of the rear stage is opposite to the velocity of the spaceship, so the relative velocity is vr=-u=-5 m/s.
    The velocity of the rear stage with respect to the sun is U=vf+vr=vf-u.

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