center of mass, the point at which all the mass of a body may be considered to be concentrated in analyzing its motion. The center of mass of a sphere of uniform density coincides with the center of the sphere. The center of mass of a body need not be within the body itself; the center of mass of a ring or a hollow cylinder is located in the enclosed space, not in the object itself. Under the action of a constant force of gravity, a body suspended or balanced at its center of mass will be stable; there will be no net moment acting on it. Sometimes a problem may be analyzed from the point of view of the center of mass of an entire system of objects, such as several colliding elementary particles or a multiple-star system. For example, the complex motions of the earth and moon about the sun become somewhat simpler when viewed from the common center of mass of the earth-moon system, located about 1,000 mi (1,600 km) below the earth's surface. It is this point that is moving in an elliptical orbit around the sun rather than the center of mass of the earth alone.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.