A principal axis of rotation (or principal direction) is an eigenvector of the mass moment of inertia tensor (introduced in the previous section) defined relative to some point (typically the center of mass). The corresponding eigenvalues are called the principal moments of inertia. Because the moment of inertia tensor is defined relative to the point in the space, the principal axes all pass through that point (usually the center of mass).
since is unit length, and projecting it onto any other vector can only shorten it or leave it unchanged. That is, , with equality occurring for for any nonzero . Zooming out, of course we expect any moment of inertia for a positive mass to be nonnegative. Thus, is symmetric nonnegative definite. If furthermore and are not collinear, i.e., if there is any nonzero angle between them, then is positive definite (and ). As is well known in linear algebra , real, symmetric, positive-definite matrices have orthogonal eigenvectors and real, positive eigenvalues. In this context, the orthogonal eigenvectors are called the principal axes of rotation. Each corresponding eigenvalue is the moment of inertia about that principal axis--the corresponding principal moment of inertia. When angular velocity vectors are expressed as a linear combination of the principal axes, there are no cross-terms in the moment of inertia tensor--no so-called products of inertia.
The three principal axes are unique when the eigenvalues of (principal moments of inertia) are distinct. They are not unique when there are repeated eigenvalues, as in the example above of a disk rotating about any of its diameters (§B.4.4). In that example, one principal axis, the one corresponding to eigenvalue , was (i.e., orthogonal to the disk and passing through its center), while any two orthogonal diameters in the plane of the disk may be chosen as the other two principal axes (corresponding to the repeated eigenvalue ).
Symmetry of the rigid body about any axis (passing through the origin) means that is a principal direction. Such a symmetric body may be constructed, for example, as a solid of revolution.B.26In rotational dynamics, this case is known as the symmetric top . Note that the center of mass will lie somewhere along an axis of symmetry. The other two principal axes can be arbitrarily chosen as a mutually orthogonal pair in the (circular) plane orthogonal to the axis, intersecting at the axis. Because of the circular symmetry about , the two principal moments of inertia in that plane are equal. Thus the moment of inertia tensor can be diagonalized to look like
Rotational Kinetic Energy Revisited
Mass Moment of Inertia Tensor