inelastic relativistic collision


A particle of mass m, moving at speed v = 4c/5, collides inelastically with a similar particle at rest.

(a) What is the speed vc of the composite particle?

(b) What is its mass mc?


Solution by Ted Jacobson


Choose units where c = 1, v = 4/5.  Let the incoming particle move in the x-direction of the rest frame, and let  γ  =  (1 v2)1/2   =  5/3.


The 4-momentum of the incoming particle (in the rest frame) is (γm, γmv, 0, 0), while the 4-momentum of the particle at rest is (m, 0, 0, 0), so the total 4-momentum is


        pμ  =  (m(γ+1), mγv, 0, 0),


which must be conserved, and is therefore the 4-momentum of the composite particle.  The mass of the composite particle is the magnitude of its 4-momentum:


        mc2  =  pμ2  =  m2(γ+1)2 - m2γ2v2  =  (γ2(1-v2) + 2γ+1)m2  =  2(γ+1)m2  =  (16/3)m2.


Hence  m=  (4/√3)m.


The velocity of the composite particle is its 3-momentum divided by its energy:


        vc  =  px / pt  =  mγv / m(γ+1)  =  (γ/(γ+1))v  =  (5/8)v  =  (5/8)(4/5)  =  1/2.


Hence  v=  c/2.