The purpose of the coaster's initial ascent is to build up a sort of reservoir of potential energy. The concept of potential energy, often referred to as energy of position, is very simple: As the coaster gets higher in the air, gravity can pull it down a greater distance. You experience this phenomenon all the time -- think about driving your car, riding your bike or pulling your sled to the top of a big hill. The potential energy you build going up the hill can be released as kinetic energy -- the energy of motion that takes you down the hill.
Once you start cruising down that first hill, gravity takes over and all the built-up potential energy changes to kinetic energy. Gravity applies a constant downward force on the cars.
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Click play to start the animation, which demonstrates how a roller coaster's energy is constantly changing between potential and kinetic energy. At the top of the first lift hill (a), there is maximum potential energy because the train is as high as it gets. As the train starts down the hill, this potential energy is converted into kinetic energy -- the train speeds up. At the bottom of the hill (b), there is maximum kinetic energy and little potential energy. The kinetic energy propels the train up the second hill (c), building up the potential-energy level. As the train enters the loop-the-loop (d), it has a lot of kinetic energy and not much potential energy. The potential-energy level builds as the train speeds to the top of the loop (e), but it is soon converted back to kinetic energy as the train leaves the loop.
The coaster tracks serve to channel this force -- they control the way the coaster cars fall. If the tracks slope down, gravity pulls the front of the car toward the ground, so it accelerates. If the tracks tilt up, gravity applies a downward force on the back of the coaster, so it decelerates.
Since an object in motion tends to stay in motion (Newton's first law of motion), the coaster car will maintain a forward velocity even when it is moving up the track, opposite the force of gravity. When the coaster ascends one of the smaller hills that follows the initial lift hill, its kinetic energy changes back to potential energy. In this way, the course of the track is constantly converting energy from kinetic to potential and back again.
This fluctuation in acceleration is what makes roller coasters so much fun. In most roller coasters, the hills decrease in height as you move along the track. This is necessary because the total energy reservoir built up in the lift hill is gradually lost to friction between the train and the track, as well as between the train and the air. When the train coasts to the end of the track, the energy reservoir is almost completely empty. At this point, the train either comes to a stop or is sent up the lift hill for another ride.
At its most basic level, this is all a roller coaster is -- a machine that uses gravity and inertia to send a train along a winding track. Next, we'll look at the various sensations you feel during a roller coaster ride, what causes them and why they're so enjoyable.