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Centripetal Acceleration

Objects moving in a circle must experience acceleration and force perpendicular to their direction of travel.

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Centripetal Acceleration

Students will learn what centripetal acceleration is, where it applies and how to calculate it. Students will also learn when a force is acting as a centripetal force and how to apply it.

Key Equations

Centripetal Force

\begin{align*} F_C = \frac{mv^2}{r} \begin{cases} m & \text{mass (in kilograms, kg)}\\ v & \text{speed (in meters per second, m/s}\text{)}\\ r & \text{radius of circle} \end{cases}\end{align*}FC=mv2rmvrmass (in kilograms, kg)speed (in meters per second, m/s)radius of circle

Centripetal Acceleration

\begin{align*} a_C = \frac{v^2}{r} \begin{cases} v & \text{speed (in meters per second, m/s}\text{)}\\ r & \text{radius of circle} \end{cases}\end{align*}


If a mass \begin{align*} m \end{align*} is traveling with velocity \begin{align*} \vec{v} \end{align*} and experiences a centripetal --- always perpendicular --- force \begin{align*} \vec{F_c} \end{align*}, it will travel in a circle of radius

\begin{align*} r = \frac{m v^2}{|\vec{F}|} \text{ [1]} \intertext{Alternatively, to keep this mass moving at this velocity in a circle of this radius, one needs to apply a centripetal force of} \vec{F_c} = \frac{mv^2}{r} \text{ [2]} \intertext{By Newton's Second Law, this is equivalent to a centripetal acceleration of:} \vec{F_c} =\cancel{m}\vec{a_c} = \cancel{m}\frac{v^2}{r} \text{ [3]} \end{align*}

Example 1

If you are 4m from the center of a Merry-Go-Round that is rotating at 1 revolution every 2 seconds, what is your centripetal acceleration?


First we need to find your tangential velocity. We can do this using the given angular velocity.

\begin{align*} \omega&=\frac{2\pi\text{ rad}}{2\text{ s}}\\ \omega&=\pi\text{ rad/s}\\ \omega&=\frac{v}{r}\\ v&=\omega r\\ v&=\pi\;\text{rad/s}*4\;\text{m}\\ v&=4\pi\;\text{m/s} \end{align*}

Now we can find your centripetal acceleration using the radius of your rotation.

\begin{align*} a_c&=\frac{v^2}{r}\\ a_c&=\frac{(4\pi\;\text{m/s})^2}{4\;\text{m}}\\ a_c&=4\pi^2\;\text{m/s}^2\\ \end{align*}

Watch this explanation


Ladybug Motion in 2D (PhET Simulation)

Time for Practice

  1. A 6000 kg roller coaster goes around a loop of radius 30m at 6 m/s. What is the centripetal acceleration?
  2. For the Gravitron ride above, assume it has a radius of 18 m and a centripetal acceleration of 32 m/s2. Assume a person is in the graviton with 180 cm height and 80 kg of mass. What is the speed it is spinning at? Note you may not need all the information here to solve the problem.


1. 1.2 m/s2

2. 24 m/s

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