Motion With Constant Acceleration (Examples, Exercises, Solutions)

An abstraction often used in physics is motion with constant acceleration. This is a good approximation for many different situations: free fall over small distances or in low-density atmospheres, full braking in car traffic, an object sliding down an inclined plane, etc … The mathematics behind this special case is relatively simple. Assume the object that is subject to the constant acceleration a (in m/s²) initially has a velocity v(0) (in m/s). Since the velocity is the integral of the acceleration function, the object’s velocity after time t (in s) is simply:

1) v(t) = v(0) + a · t

For example, if a car initially goes v(0) = 20 m/s and brakes with a constant a = -10 m/s², which is a realistic value for asphalt, its velocity after a time t is:

v(t) = 20 – 10 · t

After t = 1 second, the car’s speed has decreased to v(1) = 20 – 10 · 1 = 10 m/s and after t = 2 seconds the car has come to a halt: v(2) = 20 – 10 · 2 = 0 m/s. As you can see, it’s all pretty straight-forward. Note that the negative acceleration (also called deceleration) has led the velocity to decrease over time. In a similar manner, a positive acceleration will cause the speed to go up. You can read more on acceleration in this blog post.

What about the distance x (in m) the object covers? We have to integrate the velocity function to find the appropriate formula. The covered distance after time t is:

2) x(t) = v(0) · t + 0.5 · a · t²

While that looks a lot more complicated, it is really just as straight-forward. Let’s go back to the car that initially has a speed of v(0) = 20 m/s and brakes with a constant a = -10 m/s². In this case the above formula becomes:

x(t) = 20 · t – 0.5 · 10 · t²

After t = 1 second, the car has traveled x(1) = 20 · 1 – 0.5 · 10 · 1² = 15 meters. By the time it comes to a halt at t = 2 seconds, it moved x(2) = 20 · 2 – 0.5 · 10 · 2² = 20 meters. Note that we don’t have to use the time as a variable. There’s a way to eliminate it. We could solve equation 1) for t and insert the resulting expression into equation 2). This leads to a formula connecting the velocity v and distance x.

3) Constant acceleration_html_b85f3ec

Solved for x it looks like this:

3)’ Constant acceleration_html_m23bb2bb3

It’s a very useful formula that you should keep in mind. Suppose a tram accelerates at a constant a = 1.3 m/s², which is also a realistic value, from rest (v(0) = 0 m/s). What distance does it need to go to full speed v = 10 m/s? Using equation 3)’ we can easily calculate this:

Constant acceleration_html_m11de6604


Here are a few exercises and solutions using the equations 1), 2) and 3).

1. During free fall (air resistance neglected) an object accelerates with about a = 10 m/s. Suppose the object is dropped, that is, it is initially at rest (v(0) = 0 m/s).

a) What is its speed after t = 3 seconds?
b) What distance has it traveled after t = 3 seconds?
c) Suppose we drop the object from a tower that is x = 20 meters tall. At what speed will it impact the ground?
d) How long does the drop take?

Hint: in exercise d) solve equation 1) for t and insert the result from c)

2. During the reentry of space crafts accelerations can be as high as a = -70 m/s². Suppose the space craft initially moves with v(0) = 6000 m/s.

a) What’s the speed and covered distance after t = 10 seconds?
b) How long will it take the space craft to half its initial velocity?
c) What distance will it travel during this time?

3. An investigator arrives at the scene of a car crash. From the skid marks he deduces that it took the car a distance x = 55 meters to come to a halt. Assume full braking (a = -10 m/s²). Was the car initially above the speed limit of 30 m/s?


Solutions to the exercises:

Exercise 1

a) 30 m/s
b) 45 m
c) 20 m/s
d) 2 s

Exercise 2

a) 5,300 m/s and 56,500 m
b) 42.9 s (rounded)
c) 192,860 m (rounded)

Exercise 3

Yes (he was initially going 33.2 m/s)


To learn the basic math you need to succeed in physics, check out the e-book “Algebra – The Very Basics”. For an informal introduction to physics, check out the e-book “Physics! In Quantities and Examples”. Both are available at low prices and exclusively for Kindle.

Missile Accuracy (CEP) – Excerpt from “Statistical Snacks”

An important quantity when comparing missiles is the CEP (Circular Error Probable). It is defined as the radius of the circle in which 50 % of the fired missiles land. The smaller it is, the better the accuracy of the missile. The German V2 rockets for example had a CEP of about 17 km. So there was a 50/50 chance of a V2 landing within 17 km of its target. Targeting smaller cities or even complexes was next to impossible with this accuracy, one could only aim for a general area in which it would land rather randomly.

Today’s missiles are significantly more accurate. The latest version of China’s DF-21 has a CEP about 40 m, allowing the accurate targeting of small complexes or large buildings, while CEP of the American made Hellfire is as low as 4 m, enabling precision strikes on small buildings or even tanks.

Assuming the impacts are normally distributed, one can derive a formula for the probability of striking a circular target of Radius R using a missile with a given CEP:

p = 1 – exp( -0.41 · R² / CEP² )

This quantity is also called the “single shot kill probability” (SSKP). Let’s include some numerical values. Assume a small complex with the dimensions 100 m by 100 m is targeted with a missile having a CEP of 150 m. Converting the rectangular area into a circle of equal area gives us a radius of about 56 m. Thus the SSKP is:

p = 1 – exp( -0.41 · 56² / 150² ) = 0.056 = 5.6 %

So the chances of hitting the target are relatively low. But the lack in accuracy can be compensated by firing several missiles in succession. What is the chance of at least one missile hitting the target if ten missiles are fired? First we look at the odds of all missiles missing the target and answer the question from that. One missile misses with 0.944 probability, the chance of having this event occur ten times in a row is:

p(all miss) = 0.94410 = 0.562

Thus the chance of at least one hit is:

p(at least one hit) = 1 – 0.562 = 0.438 = 43.8 %

Still not great considering that a single missile easily costs 10000 $ upwards. How many missiles of this kind must be fired at the complex to have a 90 % chance at a hit? A 90 % chance at a hit means that the chance of all missiles missing is 10 %. So we can turn the above formula for p(all miss) into an equation by inserting p(all miss) = 0.1 and leaving the number of missiles n undetermined:

0.1 = 0.944n

All that’s left is doing the algebra. Applying the natural logarithm to both sides and solving for n results in:

n = ln(0.1) / ln(0.944) = 40

So forty missiles with a CEP of 150 m are required to have a 90 % chance at hitting the complex. As you can verify by doing the appropriate calculations, three DF-21 missiles would have achieved the same result.

Liked the excerpt? Get the book “Statistical Snacks” by Metin Bektas here: http://www.amazon.com/Statistical-Snacks-ebook/dp/B00DWJZ9Z2. For more excerpts see The Probability of Becoming a Homicide Victim and How To Use the Expected Value.