Confused by radial vs. centripetal acceleration

  1. Dec 5, 2010 #1

    I've been working through some examples from the course material we use in physics class, but one thing keeps confusing me: What is the difference between centripetal and radial acceleration?

    For instance, when we have a particle traveling in a circular path, the acceleration towards the center of the circle may be written as Ar (a sub r)=-Ac= - v^2/r, while other times it is written simply as Ac=v^2/r. The text book (JS Physics for Scientists and Engineers) seems to use both.

    Where is the negative sign coming from? I made a quick sketch. Am I right if i think that the radial acceleration is negative in the first circle (to the left) and it is positive in the circle to the right? Is it just due to how I pick the axis and how I define positive direction?

    Thanks in advance.

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  3. Dec 5, 2010 #2

    Doc Al

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    Staff: Mentor

    Same thing.
    v^2/r is the magnitude of the radial acceleration; the direction is toward the center. Whether that's positive or negative just depends on how you define your sign convention.

  4. Dec 5, 2010 #3
    Thank you very much. :)
  5. Dec 5, 2010 #4


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    Science Advisor

    Radial acceleration is equal to centripetal acceleration when the radius remains constant (with a +/- sign depending on definition). If radius changes as a function of time, you have to add the explicit second derivative of radius with respect to time.

    [tex]a_r = a_c + \ddot{r} = -\omega^2 r + \frac{d^2r}{dt^2}[/tex]

    Similarly, tangential acceleration will pick up a term that depends on the second derivative of angle with respect to time and a Coriolis Effect term.
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