Mechanics Tutorial 8 - Projectiles

A projectile is any object that is thrown by any means.  There are three situations we will look at:

  The key concepts you must understand:


General Concepts

We will call the horizontal motion the x-component, and the vertical motion the y-component.


At this level, we always ignore air resistance.

Lets look at the horizontal motion:

vx and sx are the horizontal velocity and horizontal displacement respectively.

You can see that its very simple and it is affected in NO WAY by the vertical motion.  If we want to know the range (the displacement of projectile when it lands), we need to know vx and t.

Now lets look at the vertical motion.  Since we have an acceleration (g = -9.81 m s-2), we use the equations of motion that involve acceleration.  We also need to be aware of the minus sign that tells us that the acceleration is vertically downwards.

The terms uy,  vy, , and sy stand for initial vertical velocity, final vertical velocity, and vertical displacement respectively.

 The directions are important.  If the vertical velocity is positive, it means that the object is moving upwards.  This is also true for the displacement.  Downwards is negative.

Whether the object is moving upwards or downwards, it is accelerating at -9.81 m s-2.

Some points from this diagram:


Many students forget the independence of vertical and horizontal motions.  They blindly put the horizontal velocity into the equations:


...usually into the uy term.  That will get zero marks in the exam.

The example below includes what NOT to do. 

Worked Example

An aerobatic pilot is flying at a speed of 70 m/s between air-shows at a height of 500 m.  He is hungry and eats a pork pie which he finds utterly unpleasant.  He throws it out of the aeroplane. 

a)      How long does the pie take to reach the ground?

b)      What is the distance between the point of release and the point at which it hits the ground?

c)      What is its speed when it hits the ground?


Now the correct way:

  • Horizontal velocity = 70 m/s

  • Vertical displacement = - 500 m (its downwards)

  • Initial vertical velocity = 0 m/s


a)      Use



-500 = 0 t + -9.81 t2


t2 = (-500 2) -9.81


t2 = 1000 9.81 = 102


t = 102 = 10.1 s


Note how the displacement is negative and the acceleration is negative, so the minus signs cancel out.  Time is always positive; you cannot go back in time.


b) Use :

sx = 70 10.1 = 707 m

c) Work out the vertical velocity using:

vy2 = 0 + 2 -9.81 -500 = 9810

vy = 99 m/s

Now we can work out the resultant velocity:

Work out vR:

vR2 = 992 + 702

vR2 = 9810 + 4900 = 14710

vR = 121 m/s


Projectile problems often cause problems for students.  They are not that difficult as long as you remember the problem-solving strategy.  Let us look at three different situations.


Throwing An Object Vertically Into The Air

Consider a basketball player throwing a ball in the air.  What goes up must come down.

Picture from a clip art collection

The ball has a downward force acting on it because of gravity.  Therefore it will slow down at a rate of 10 m/s2.  So we can say that the acceleration is -10 m/s2.  When we tackle problems like this, we use the equations of motion. Click HERE if you need to review the equations of motion. We have to make sure that we get the signs right.  We will make upwards positive and downwards negative.

Question 1

The girl throws the ball at an upward velocity of 15 m/s.  How high will it go?

Question 2

How long will it take the ball to reach its maximum height?


We can represent these motions graphically.  It is important that you understand these graphs.

A displacement time graph looks like this:

The graph is a parabola because the ball is accelerating downwards.  When it reaches the top, its velocity is 0, but its acceleration is still (-)10 m/s2

The velocity time graph looks like this:

This graph shows how the velocity not only changes, but its sign changes as well.  This tells us that the direction changes as well.  This stands to reason; if going up is positive, going down must be negative.  Note that the gradient is constant, i.e. the acceleration is constant.

Question 3 

What would the speed time graph look like?


The acceleration time graph looks like this.

It shows us that the acceleration is constant at -9.8 m/s2.  The minus sign tells us that the acceleration is towards the ground.

Throwing an object horizontally from a height

If we throw an object horizontally, there are two important things to consider:

If we throw one object and drop a second object at the same time, we see this:

The second object, thrown horizontally, will hit the ground at the same time as the object that is simply dropped.

Although the drawing is not to scale, you can see how the horizontal velocity remains constant, while there is acceleration downwards.

Look at the diagram below.  A pallet is dropped from a helicopter to the ground.  We will ignore the air resistance.

The path taken is NOT a straight line, because the velocity downwards is increasing at a constant rate of 9.8 m/s2.  It is a parabola.  There are two components in this problem:

The key point to remember is that the horizontal and the vertical motions are independent. 

A common bear-trap is to put the horizontal velocity into the vertical equation of motion.

Question 4 What is the horizontal velocity?  Answer
Question 5 Can you show that the vertical velocity is 44.7 m/s towards the ground?  Note that the horizontal velocity is ignored. Answer
Question 6 What is the resultant velocity of the pallet just before it hits the ground? Answer
Throwing an object at an angle

Picture by Casito, Wikimedia Commons

Archery is a sport in which the participants subconsciously do calculations involving movement in two directions.  Again the vertical and horizontal movement are independent.

Let us analyse the motion from the moment an arrow is released to the moment it hits the target.  We want to find the range.  For simplicity we will assume that the target is at the same height as the release point.  We will also ignore air resistance.  We will not worry about the signs.

1.  On release, the arrow leaves at a velocity v m/s and angle q.  The horizontal velocity is v cos q m/s.  The horizontal velocity remains constant at v cos q metres per second.

2.  The vertical velocity is v sin q metres per second initially.

3. To work out the time we need to use an equation of motion that has initial velocity, acceleration, and time.

    v = u + at will fit the bill.

    0 = v sin q + at

    v sin q  = at

Therefore t = v sin q



4. To get the range we need to multiply the horizontal velocity by the time taken in the air. Therefore:

range = v cos q  2t

It is 2t because it takes t seconds for the arrow to go up to its maximum height and t seconds for it to come down again.

Worked example

A large firework rocket leaves a launch tube at a velocity of 110 m/s at an angle of 30 degrees.  What is the range of the rocket?

1. Work out the horizontal velocity.

Horizontal velocity = v cos q = 110 m/s x cos 30 = 110 m/s x 0.866 = 95.3 m/s

2. Work out the initial vertical velocity:

The initial vertical velocity = v sin q = 110 sin 30 = 110 m/s x 0.5 = 55 m/s.

3. Now work out the time it takes to get to the maximum height:

0 = 55 m/s + -10 m/s2 x t ( 0 - 55m/s = -10 t)

t = 55 m/s 10 m/s2 = 5.5 s

Therefore the total time in the air = 2 x 5.5 s = 11 s

4. Therefore the range = v cos q  2t

= 11 s 95.3 m/s = 1050 m.

In the AS exam, they will not be over officious with signs, but make sure you explain each step. 

Question 7

A javelin thrower throws a javelin at a velocity of 25 m/s at an angle of 40 degrees.  What distance will he throw the javelin?