3.5: Average Acceleration
The importance of understanding acceleration spans our day-to-day experiences, as well as the vast reaches of outer space and the tiny world of subatomic physics. In everyday conversation, to accelerate means to speed up. For instance, we are familiar with the acceleration of our car; the harder we apply our foot to the gas pedal, the faster we accelerate. The greater the acceleration, the greater the change in velocity over a given time. Acceleration is widely seen in experimental physics. In linear particle accelerator experiments, for example, subatomic particles are accelerated to very high velocities in collision experiments, which tell us information about the structure of the subatomic world as well as the origin of the universe. In space, cosmic rays are subatomic particles that have been accelerated to very high energies in supernovas (exploding massive stars) and active galactic nuclei. It is important to understand the processes that accelerate cosmic rays, because these rays contain highly penetrating radiation that can damage electronics on spacecraft, for example.
Average acceleration is the rate at which velocity changes. Recall that velocity is a vector—it has both magnitude and direction—which means that a change in velocity can be a change in magnitude (speed), or a change in direction. For example, if a runner traveling at 10 km/h due east slows to a stop, reverses direction, and continues their run at 10 km/h due west, their velocity has changed as a result of the change in direction, even though the magnitude of the velocity is the same in both directions. Thus, acceleration occurs when velocity changes in magnitude (an increase or decrease in speed) or in direction, or both.
This text is adapted from Openstax, University Physics Volume 1, Section 3.3: Average and Instantaneous Acceleration.