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The Brachistochrone
By: Joseph E. Valencia
MATH-308-200
Dr. Sifuentes
Spring 2015

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Introduction
Walt Disney Parks has decided that its time to renovate Space Mountain, one of the
premier attractions in Disneyland and the Walt Disney Worlds Magic Kingdom. This roller
coaster was opened in 1975, and, with the help of NASA astronaut Gordon Cooper, was
designed in order to simulate space flight. However, since 1975, Aerospace technologies have
advanced light-years and Space Mountain has had a number of safety and/or operation-related
incidents which have caused the ride to shut down. Disney Parks has decided that its time to
renovate this attraction in order to reflect the new possibilities of interstellar travel and in order
to preserve the safety and mechanical integrity of this timeless attraction.

Figure 1: An Exterior Photograph of Space Mountain (photo credit: Disney Parks)

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Figure 2: The interior walkway of Space Mountain (photo credit: Disney Parks)

The Disney Imagineers have decided that in the new Space Mountain, they want to
highlight the fact that there is no friction or air resistance in space. Luckily enough, the Texas
A&M Materials Science Department has just invented a new superconductor, the SuperC-X5,
which exists in its superconducting state at a temperature of 23 degrees Celcius. Due to the
feasibility of maintaining this temperature inside the ride, the Imagineers have decided that the
new transports will not be attached to a trackinstead, they will float above a long rod of
current-carrying metal. The current will simply make the transports levitate, it will not affect
their acceleration. In addition, the transports will be sealed and fed with oxygen, allowing the
transports to be placed in a tube from which all air has been removed (so that the tube is a
vacuum). This way, the passengers travelling through the galaxies of Space Mountain will truly

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be able to experience the wonders of interstellar travel without the earthly limitations of friction
and drag.

Figure 3: Current Space Transports in Space Mountain (photo credit: Disney Parks). Notice that these transports are subject to
both friction and air resistance.

The Problem
However, in the process of planning the details of the new attraction, the Imagineers have
hit a road block: after the initial liftoff, what path of travel should they begin the initial drop
with in order to give the new astronauts the most thrilling experience? Befuddled by this
question, the Imagineers once again turned to Texas A&M, and presented the Department of
Mathematics with their predicament. The department, after examining the situation, decided that
this was a Brachistochrone problem. After further examining the spacial constraints of Space
Mountains existing outer shell, the professors and the Mathematics department agreed upon 6
possible pathways (spread across 2 regions of space) to get from point A to point B. The first
region was 100 meters in the direction perpendicular to Earths gravity and 200 meters in the
direction to earths gravity and the second was 100 meters in each respective direction. The
pathways that could be taken to travel through each of these regions were a straight line, a
circular arc, or a cycloid. This is illustrated in the figures below, where the line is the top
pathway, the cycloid is the middle pathway, and the circular arc is the bottom pathway:

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Figure 4: Scenarios 1 and 2 (Photo Credit: Dr. Sifuentes, Texas A&M University)

Thus, from these scenarios, it was possible to model p, the motion of the transport, in
vertical and horizontal components as functions of , the angle that the transport makes with the
origin, and t, the time after the transport was released at point A. Thus, p((t)) could be modeled
by the following equations for the following pathways and scenarios:
1)

The Line (The origin is at point A and Rl is 100 meters. The limitations of are also
listed):

2)

The Circle (The origin is at the center of each circular arc, Rc is the radius of the circle,
and phic is the maximum angle. The limitations of are also listed):

3)

The Cycloid (The origin is at point A, Ry is the radius in polar coordinates, and phiy is the
maximum angle. The limitations of are also listed):

The Linear and Circular pathways satisfy the following differential equation (note that g=9.8
m/s2 because the travelers are really still on earth, and that the dot between Fg and dp/d denotes
the dot product of these two vectors):

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The Line has the following initial conditions for the above differential equation (in both cases):

The Circle has the following initial conditions for the above differential equation (in both cases):

(t) satisfies the following differential equation for the cycloidal pathway with the following
initial conditions (note that p2 refers to the second row of the parameterization of p):

Thus, the process that the Department of Mathematics used in order to find the fastest path from
point A to point B for the Disney Imagineers was to use these equations to find the amount of
time it took to travel these pathways.
In order to find the amount of time that it took for the transport to get from point A to
point B via a linear path, the differential equation had to be solved for t with the maximum value
of , 1, input for the (t) parameter. Thus, for scenario 1, the first step was to find (dp)/(d), and
then plug this, along with the other necessary variables into the equation, and then solve the
differential equation by separation of variables.

Rl
= [
]
2Rl

Thus, the differential equation for scenario 1 of the line simplifies to the following:

2
2
=
2 ( 2 + 4)

Solving by separation of d and dt yields the following solution:


2

() = (2 +4)

and

= (

2 +4

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Thus, plugging in 1 for , it can be concluded that it takes 11.9 seconds for the transport to
fall to the end of the ramp.
Scenario 2 for the line is very similar in nature, however, the end equation ends up
slightly different because dp/d is different (due to the differences in the horizontal and vertical
distances). However, the approach for solving the differential equation is exactly the same as it
was for the line in scenario1.

Rl
= [
]
2Rl

Thus, the differential equation for scenario 1 of the line simplifies to the following:

2
=
2 2

Solving by separation of d and dt yields the following solution:


() =

2
4

and

= 2( )

Thus, plugging in 1 for , it can be concluded that it takes 6.39 seconds for the transport to
fall to the end of the ramp.
For scenario 1 of the circle, the first thing to do is determine the radius, Rc. Because of
the parameterization, it is known that initially, Rc points entirely in the negative horizontal
direction (because sin() is 0), so we know that the origin of the circle lies somewhere along the
length of the 100 horizontal line. Thus, Rc plus some unkown value to the right of the radius (in
the cture for scenario 1), x, is equal to 100.
+ = 100
In addition to this, it is known that when the transport has completed the circular path, the
horizontal and vertical position can be described by the following 2 equations:
cos( ) = x
sin( ) = 200
Thus, the above three equations for Rc, y, and x constitute a system of nonlinear equations. The

solution was approximated in MATLAB using the solve function (see BrachistocrhoneCircle.m
and circle_the_movie.m), and the following results were obtained:
50( 2 + 4)
=

= 1.6391

50( 2 4)

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Since all necessary variables have been found in order to solve the differential equation (and
evaluate it in order to find the amount of time it takes for the transport to travel the length of the
circle), it was possible to proceed with the selected problem solving strategy. Thus, it was
necessary to find dp/d:

sin((t))
= [
]
cos((t))

Thus, the differential equation simplifies to the following:


2

= cos(())
2

This differential equation is not separable, and nor is it linear, so the solution to this differential
equation must be approximated. This too, was accomplished in MATLAB, however, this time,
ode45, a function that solves and approximates nonstiff differential equations, was used in order
to approximate the solution (see see BrachistocrhoneCircle.m and circle_the_movie.m). Per the
results of this approximation, the time taken in for the transport to travel from point A to point B
in scenario 1 was calculated to be 10.2061 s.
For the second scenario, calculating the required variables, Rc and , was much easier,
because by simply looking at the it can be determined by the fact that the initial horizontal and
final vertical positions are equal, so the radius must be 100 meters. In addition, because the
initial value of is , and the transport moves only a quarter circle, it can be easily concluded
that is

3
2

. Because the parameterization is the same for the circles in both scenarios,

is the

same for both scenarios (because Rl is expressed in these equations as a variable, and can be
adapted by the circle used). Thus, the differential equation for this circle is the exact same as it
was for the circle in scenario 1:
2

cos(())
2

Ergo, MATLABs ode45 function was also used to approximate the time it took for the transport
in this scenario; and, per the results of the function, the time it took for the transport to travel
from point A to point B in the second scenario was approximated at 6.1015 s.
For the cycloidal pathway in the first scenario, the first step was to find the required
variables for solving the differential equation, Ry and . Evaluating p()) at 0 and at (one half
revolution) reveals that the p is a scaling of Ry in horizontal and vertical directions (respectably),
and thus, it can be concluded that is . Using these same two evaluations, it can be concluded
that Ry is 100 meters for scenario 1. Now, the differential equation can be solved. However,
before it is solved, note that p is similar to p for the circle in that the radius is only a numeric
scaling of the position. Ergo, it can be concluded that like the differential equation for the circle,
the differential equation for the cycloid will also be the same for both scenarios. First
be found. This can be done by using the chain rule.

needs to

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=

d
d
(1)
(
)

(
)(cos((t))

1 cos((t))
dt
dt
= [
] =
[
]
d

sin((t))
0 ( )(sin((t))
dt

This was then plugged into the differential equation, and then simplified. The final differential
equation took the form of:

By separation of variables and by integration, the final equation took the form of:
() =

And to solve, t was simply solved for final:


=

Thus, it was concluded that it took 10.0354 s for the transport to travel from point A to point B in
scenario 1.
For the second scenario of the cycloidal pathway, the first step was to find the required
variables for solving the differential equation, Ry and . It was not as straightforward finding
these variables as it was in the first scenario, however, the following nonlinear system of
equations could be constructed in order to approximate Ry and :
( sin ( )) = 100
( cos ( ) 1) = 100
This too, was entered into MATLABs solve function (see BrachistochroneCycloid.m), and the
resulting approximation was Ry = 57.2917 meters and = 2.4120 radians. Thus, using the
same resulting equation as derived before, but plugging in for and 57.2917 for Ry, it
was determined that it took 5.9319 s for the transport to travel from point A to point B in the
second scenario.

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Conclusions and Further Notes


Looking at the time it took for each candidate to travel the required distance in each
scenario, it can be concluded that the cycloidal path is the fastest way to get from point A to
point B in both scenarios, the circular arc is the second fastest way to travel between these two
points, and the line is the slowest way to travel between these two points. Thus, the Department
of Mathematics at Texas A&M should recommend that the cycloidal path be used for the initial
drop on the renovated Space Mountain roller coaster, regardless of the scenario, because this will
give the riders the best possible experience by allowing them to soar through space as fast as
possible, with no forces acting on them but the gravitational pull of the earth. Movies of the
transports (modeled by a ball, since there is no friction or air resistance) have been created and
attached to this project. Please execute the attached code in line_the_movie.m,
circle_the_movie.m, and cycloid_the_demonstration.m in order to watch these demonstrations.
This conclusion, Space Mountain, and the movie demonstrations may be straightforward,
however, there is one thing about this project that isntthe cycloid. What exactly is a cycloid?
If one were to poll random people off the street and ask them this question, one would likely get
a number of answers ranging from a shape with a lot of loops to something that professional
cyclists use to train. Simply put, a cycloid is the shape formed by a colored spot on a hula-hoop
in the air as it is rolled across the ground in a single revolution. The cture below illustrates this
as the red dot is pressed against a ceiling, then rolled through a single revolution:

Figure 5: Cycloid Pressed Against a Ceiling (Photo Credit: Dr. Sifuentes, Texas A&M University)

In order to explain the parameterization for the cycloid (as listed earlier), lets take a look
at a circle rolling through space:

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Figure 6: Parametric Equations for a Cycloid (photo credit Gayle Gilbert & Greg Schmidt, The University of Georgia)

First, notice that in the diagram || = = by the definition of arc length. Next, note
that the center of the Circle, C, can be represented in Cartesian coordinates as = (, ). If we
put P, the point that draws the path of this particular cycloid, in Cartesian coordinates, we get
that = || || = () = ( sin()) and = || || =
() = (1 cos()). When the cycloid is flipped upside down (pressed against the ceiling)
like we have in the scenarios 1 and 2, note that the subtraction of || || gets flipped to
|| ||, which results in the y-coordinate being parameterized by = (cos() 1). Thus,
p can be parameterized for the cycloid as listed on the first page.
Finally, how should you, the reader, know that you can trust these analyses presented
here? Well, the Mathematical geniuses of the cycloidthe Bernoulli bros., Leibniz, von
Tschirnhuas, and lHotal, all demonstrated that the cycloid satisfies the following differential
equation, where () is the slope of () (I will prove it also):

() =

1 ()
sin()
=
2 ()
1 cos()
2

sin()
(1 + (
) ) = 2
1 cos()

= 2

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cos()2 2 cos() + 1 + sin()2


) |cos() 1| = 2
(1 cos())2
(

cos() + 1
) 2|cos() 1| = 2
(1 cos())2

2 = 2 ***note that the |cos() 1| cancels the other 1 cos() in the denominator because
its the magnitude.

References
Space Mountain. (n.d.). Retrieved May 1, 2015, from
https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/attractions/magic-kingdom/space-mountain/
Disneyland's Space Mountain shut down for safety review. (2013, April 14). Retrieved May 1,
2015, from http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/americas/unitedstates/130414/disneylands-space-mountain-shut-down-safety-revi
IFW-Dresden Superconducting Maglev Train Models. (n.d.). Retrieved May 1, 2015, from
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TeS_U9qFg7Y
Documentation. (n.d.). Retrieved May 1, 2015, from
http://www.mathworks.com/help/matlab/ref/ode45.html?searchHighlight=ode45
Gilbert, G., & Schmidt, G. (n.d.). Parametric Equations for a Cycloid. Retrieved May 1, 2015,
from http://jwilson.coe.uga.edu/EMAT6680Fa07/Gilbert/Assignment 10/Gayle&Greg-10.htm
Sifuentes, J. (n.d.). Brachistochrone. Retrieved May 1, 2015, from
http://www.math.tamu.edu/~josefs/math308/honors/brachistochrone.pdf