Acceleration – A Short and Simple Explanation

The three basic quantities used in kinematics are distance, velocity and acceleration. Let’s first look at velocity before moving on to the main topic. The velocity is simply the rate of change in distance. If we cover the distance d in a time span t, than the average velocity during this interval is:

v = d / t

So if we drive d = 800 meters in t = 40 seconds, the average speed is v = 800 meters / 40 seconds = 20 m/s. No surprise here. Note that there are many different units commonly used for velocity: kilometers per hour, feet per second, miles per hour, etc … The SI unit is m/s, so unless otherwise stated, you have to input the velocity in m/s into a formula to get a correct result.

Acceleration is also defined as the rate of change, but this time with respect to velocity. If the velocity changes by the amount v in a time span t, the average acceleration is:

a = v / t

For example, my beloved Mercedes C-180 Compressor can go from 0 to 100 kilometers per hour (or 27.8 meters per second) in about 9 seconds. So the average acceleration during this time is:

a = 27.8 meters per second / 9 seconds = 3.1 m/s²

Is that a lot? Obviously we should know some reference values to be able to judge acceleration.

The one value you should know is: g = 9.81 m/s². This is the acceleration experienced in free fall. And you can take the word “experienced” literally because unlike velocity, we really do feel acceleration. Our inner ear system contains structures that enable us to perceive it. Often times acceleration is compared to this value because it provides a meaningful and easily relatable reference value.

So the acceleration in the Mercedes C-180 Compressor is not quite as thrilling as free fall, it only accelerates with about 3.1 / 9.81 = 0.32 g. How much higher can it go for production cars? Well, meet the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport. It goes from 0 to 100 kilometers per hour (or 27.8 meters per second) in 2.2 seconds. This translates into an acceleration of:

a = 27.8 meters per second / 2.2 seconds = 12.6 m/s²

This is more than the free fall acceleration! To be more specific, it’s 12.6 / 9.81 = 1.28 g. If you got $ 4,000,000 to spare, how about getting one of these? But even this is nothing compared to what astronauts have to endure during launch. Here you can see a typical acceleration profile of a Space Shuttle launch:

(Taken from http://www.russellwestbrook.com)

Right before the main engine shutoff the acceleration peaks at close to 30 m/s² or 3 g. That’s certainly not for everyone. How much can a person endure by the way? According to “Aerospace Medicine” accelerations of around 5 g and higher can result in death if sustained for more than a few seconds. Very short acceleration bursts can be survivable up to about 50 g, which is a value that can be reached and exceeded in a car crash.

One more thing to keep in mind about acceleration: it is always a result of a force. If a force F (measured in Newtons = N) acts on a body, it responds by accelerating. The stronger the force is, the higher the resulting acceleration. This is just Newton’s Second Law:

a = F / m

So a force of F = 210 N on a body of m = 70 kg leads to an acceleration of a = 210 N / 70 kg = 3 m/s². The same force however on a m = 140 kg mass only leads to the acceleration a = 210 N / 140 kg = 1.5 m/s². Hence, mass provides resistance to acceleration. You need more force to accelerate a massive body at the same rate as a light body.

For more interesting physics articles, check out my BEST OF.

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3 comments

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