How Fast is Earth Moving? It’s A Question of Earth’s Speed and Acceleration

Picture of our solar system, which revolves around the center of the galaxy. Image courtesy of NASA

Earth rotates on its axis once every day. At the same time, Earth revolves around the Sun once a year, but our movement doesn’t stop there – it is less well known, but the entire solar system orbits the center of the Milky Way Galaxy every 240 million or so years. What is Earth’s speed and acceleration for all of these motions?

Speed, Velocity, and Acceleration Explained

People often use the terms velocity and speed as if they are the same thing. Physicists, however, make a distinction between velocity and speed. Velocity includes direction, but speed does not. For example, a person running might have a speed of 6 miles per hour, but the person’s velocity might be 6 miles per hour towards the north.

Most people also think of an acceleration as an increase in speed. Physicists define acceleration as any change in velocity, which includes direction. An acceleration can therefore be either an increase or a decrease in speed as well as a change in direction at a constant speed. A car accelerates when the driver presses down on either the gas or brake pedal, or when the driver turns the steering wheel at a constant speed.

Physicists calculate the average speed by dividing the total distance traveled by the time needed to travel the distance. In equation form, it looks like this:

Average speed = net distance/time.

v = d/t

The acceleration needed to keep an object moving at a constant speed in a circular path is the centripetal acceleration. Physicists calculate the centripetal acceleration, from the object’s speed and the radius of the circular path, using a formula that looks like this:

Centripetal acceleration = speed squared/radius.

a = v2/r

Earth’s orbit around the Sun is elliptical, but it is close enough to circular that using the approximation of a circular orbit is close enough for most purposes.

Click to Read Page Two: What is a Solar Day vs. a Sidereal Day?

© Copyright 2012 Paul A. Heckert, Ph.D., All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Science
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  1. Rick Moody says

    Leaving out the rotation speed of the earth about the galaxy of 490.000 mph for simplicity, since the earth rotates/spins at about 1,000 mph in a west to east direction and it also rotates around the sun at about 67,000 mph, what is the amount of daily acceleration and deceleration experienced by a person on earth at the equator? Since this person would be traveling at a cumulative speed of 67,000 + 1,000 mph = 68,000 mph at noon, but only 67,000 – 1,000 = 66,000 mph at midnight (or vice versa) this person would experience either a relative increase or decrease in speed of 1,000 mph every 12 hours. As we don’t feel/perceive this acceleration or deceleration, the fact that this speed change occurs over several hours must make the acceleration/deceleration too small for us to sense. But what is the magnitude of this half day acceleration or deceleration? Can it be measured by equipment/sensors? Would it be large enough to affect our circadian rhythms?

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