Center of Mass:

The word particle has been used in this article to signify an object whose entire mass is concentrated at a point in space. In the real world, however, there are no particles of this kind. All real bodies have sizes and shapes. Furthermore, as Newton believed and is now known, all bodies are in fact compounded of smaller bodies called atoms. Therefore, the science of mechanics must deal not only with particles but also with more complex bodies that may be thought of as collections of particles.

To take a specific example, the orbit of a planet around the Sun was discussed earlier as if the planet and the Sun were each concentrated at a point in space. In reality, of course, each is a substantial body. However, because each is nearly spherical in shape, it turns out to be permissible, for the purposes of this problem, to treat each body as if its mass were concentrated at its centre. This is an example of an idea that is often useful in discussing bodies of all kinds: the centre of mass. The centre of mass of a uniform sphere is located at the centre of the sphere. For many purposes (such as the one cited above) the sphere may be treated as if all its mass were concentrated at its centre of mass.

To extend the idea further, consider the Earth and the Sun not as two separate bodies but as a single system of two bodies interacting with one another by means of the force of gravity. In the previous discussion of circular orbits, the Sun was assumed to be at rest at the centre of the orbit, but, according to Newton's third law, it must actually be accelerated by a force due to the Earth that is equal and opposite to the force that the Sun exerts on the Earth.

This remarkable result means that, as the Earth orbits the Sun and the Sun moves in response to the Earth's gravitational attraction, the entire two-body system has constant linear momentum, moving in a straight line at constant speed. Without any loss of generality, one can imagine observing the system from a frame of reference moving along with that same speed and direction. This is sometimes called the centre-of-mass frame. In this frame, the momentum of the two-body system is equal to zero.

Excerpt from the Encyclopedia Britannica without permission.