Elastic Collision of Two Masses – It Can Be Shown Exercise

An elastic collision is a collision where total momentum and total kinetic energy is conserved.

Elastic Collision - Conservation of Momentum Example

This illustration shows two objects A and B traveling towards each other. The mass of A is mA and the moving with velocity VAi. The second object has a mass of mB and velocity VBi. The two objects collide elastically. Mass A moves away at a velocity VAf and mass B has a final velocity of VBf.

Given these conditions, textbooks give the following formulas for VAf and VBf.

Elastic Collision Final Velocity of Mass A Formula
Elastic Collision Final Velocity of Mass B Formula

mA is the mass of the first object
VAi is the initial velocity of the first object
VAf is the final velocity of the first object
mB is the mass of the second object
VBi is the initial velocity of the second object and
VBf is the final velocity of the second object.

These two equations are often just presented in this form in the textbook with little or no explanations. Very early in your science education, you will encounter the phrase “It can be shown …” between two steps of mathematics or “left as an exercise for the student”. This almost always translates into “homework problem”. This “It can be shown” example shows how to find the final velocities of two masses after an elastic collision.

This is a step by step derivation of these two equations.

First, we know total momentum is conserved in the collision.

total momentum before collision = total momentum after collision

mAVAi + mBVBi = mAVAf + mBVBf

Rearrange this equation so the same masses are on the same side as each other

mAVAi – mAVAf = mBVBf – mBVBi

Factor out the masses

mA(VAi – VAf) = mB(VBf – VBi)

Let’s call this Equation 1 and come back to it in a minute.

Since we were told the collision was elastic, the total kinetic energy is conserved.

kinetic energy before collision = kinetic energy after collection

½mAVAi2 + ½mBVBi2 = ½mAVAf2 + ½mBVBf2

Multiply the entire equation by 2 to get rid of the ½ factors.

mAVAi2 + mBVBi2 = mAVAf2 + mBVBf2

Rearrange the equation so the like masses are together.

mAVAi2 – mAVAf2 = mBVBf2 – mBVBi2

Factor out the common masses

mA(VAi2 – VAf2) = mB(VBf2 – VBi2)

Use the “difference between two squares” relationship (a2 – b2) = (a + b)(a – b) to factor out the squared velocities on each side.

mA(VAi + VAf)(VAi – VAf) = mB(VBf + VBi)(VBf – VBi)

Now we have two equations and two unknowns, VAf and VBf.

Divide this equation by equation 1 from before (the total momentum equation from above) to get

Elastic Collision Math Step 1

Now we can cancel out most of this

Elastic Collison Math Step 2

This leaves

VAi + VAf = VBf + VBi

Solve for VAf

VAf = VBf + VBi – VAi

Now we have one of our unknowns in terms of the other unknown variable. Plug this into the original total momentum equation

mAVAi + mBVBi = mAVAf + mBVBf

mAVAi + mBVBi = mA(VBf + VBi – VAi) + mBVBf

Now, solve this for the final unknown variable, VBf

mAVAi + mBVBi = mAVBf + mAVBi – mAVAi + mBVBf

subtract mAVBi from both sides and add mAVAi to both sides

mAVAi + mBVBi – mAVBi + mAVAi = mAVBf + mBVBf

2mAVAi + mBVBi – mAVBi = mAVBf + mBVBf

factor out the masses

2 mAVAi + (mB – mA)VBi = (mA + mB)VBf

Divide both sides by (mA + mB)

elastic collision math step 3
Elastic Collision math final form of final velocity of second mass

Now we know the value of one of the unknowns, VBf. Use this to find the other unknown variable, VAf. Earlier, we found

VAf = VBf + VBi – VAi

Plug in our VBf equation and solve for VAf

Elastic Collision Step 1 solve for final velocity of object A

Group the terms with the same velocities

Elastic Collision step 2 solving for final velocity of mass A

The common denominator for both sides is (mA + mB)

elastic collision step 3 solving for final velocity of mass A
elastic collision step 4 solving for final velocity of mass A

Be careful of your signs in the first half of the expressions in this step

elastic collision step 5 solving for final velocity of mass A
Elastic Collision Final Velocity of Mass A Formula

Now we’ve solved for both unknowns VAf and VBf in terms of known values.

Elastic Collision Final Velocity of Mass A Formula
Elastic Collision Final Velocity of Mass B Formula

Note these match the equations we were supposed to find.

This was not a difficult problem, but there were a couple spots to trip you up.

First, all the subscripts can get tangled up if you aren’t careful or neat in your handwriting.

Second, sign errors. Subtracting a pair of variables inside parentheses will change the sign on BOTH variables. It is all too easy to carelessly turn – (a + b) into -a + b instead of -a – b.

Last, learn the difference between two squares factor. a2 – b2 = (a + b)(a – b) is an extremely useful factoring trick when trying to cancel something out of an equation.