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How Gravity Affects Orbits

Grade Level State Indicator(s) Goals and Objectives Students will explore how the force of gravity affects celestial bodies to for Student Learning cause one to orbit around the other (i.e., mimicking the planets orbiting the

sun in the solar system). Main points to be covered include: 1.) Gravity is always an attractive force operating between any two masses 2.) The strength of the force depends directly on the masses of the two bodies. 3.) The strength of the force depends inversely on the distance between the two objects. 4.) Whether an object is captured into a gravitational orbit depends on the mass, radius, and velocity of the approaching object.

Diversity Teaching Method Learning Activities

Guided to open inquiry Science Introduction: Gravity is an attractive force that operates between ALL objects that have mass. The mathematical equation for the force of gravity is:

F = GMm d2

where M and m are the masses of the two objects on which the gravitational force is acting upon, d is the distance between the two objects, and G is the gravitational constant, measured to be 6.67 x 10-11 m3 kg-1 s-2 through experiments (i.e., empirically). In non-math speak, this equation means that ALL pairs of objects both feel the gravitational force from other objects AND exert a gravitational force on other objects (i.e., Newton’s 3rd Law: For every force, there is an equal and opposite force). So that the gravitational force acting between two objects is actually felt by both objects. The strength of this force is ONLY dependent on the masses of both objects AND the distance between them, in the sense that the force becomes STRONGER for LARGER masses, and the force becomes WEAKER with LARGER distances between the massive objects. Since gravity is an attractive force between all massive objects, both on earth and in space, it is responsible for the planets staying in orbit around the sun. If gravity were to suddenly stop acting between the sun and the planets in the solar system, the planets would just fly off in straight lines,

pairs of students will experiment with different strengths and lengths of yarn while moving in marked paths around the room to simulate the force of gravity. and will fly off in some direction in a straight line.. resulting in the orbital motion that we see. and swing it around in a circle in the air above your head. this force constantly pulls the planets toward the sun. Newton’s 1st Law: An object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon by an outside force). Lesson Introduction: In this lesson.) Mark an X on the floor with masking tape. lengths (~10) of yarn.g.black marks below: Sun Planet START 2 ft 4 ft START 8 ft START 1. lines along the floor 2 feet. and when the string eventually cuts all the way through the donut. inversely dependent on distance. Tie a donut to a string (cake donuts work best). 4 feet. However.) Provide each student with several 8 ft. . and 8 feet away. and then next to the X. e. the string will cut into the donut. They will experiments with the string to see if they can deduce the dependencies of gravity: directly dependent on mass.e. even when they are trying to move in a straight line (i. Demonstration: Example of Newton’s 1st Law: in the absence of gravity (an outside force). . As it swings. it is released from the force directing it in a circle (due to the string).going which ever direction they happened to be moving at the moment the gravity stopped. (This can also be demonstrated by simply letting go of the string – with anything attached to the other end – but this isn’t quite as dramatic) Main Procedure: 0. since the gravity attracts the planets and the sun. objects in orbit will begin to travel in straight lines.

(Alternately.. as the student starts to move past on the line. only this time.g. Teacher note: Please make it clear to students that they should not be “jerking” on the string to try to break it. As the student walking the line crosses in front of the person on the ‘X’. as adding this extra force to “try” to break the string will inevitably make it more difficult for them to easily notice the trends in the strength of the ‘gravitational force’ (or string).e.) Variable Mass: Have a single student walk the same line over and over. another student standing on the red line hands the string to the walking student (alternately. However. the force of gravity is enacted. If the force of gravity is strong enough. and they will be forced to ‘orbit’ the person on the ‘X’.) Variable distance: Have student walk each of the three lines at varying distance from the ‘X’. the strength of the gravitational force should become greater because the mass is increased. if you wish them to start on the closest line and see the force getting weaker with distance. respectively). two strings from two students. the student will most likely just break the string and keep moving on their way – the force of gravity wasn’t strong enough to ‘capture’ the student into orbit.) Cases to try: a. In this scenario. but vary the mass of the ‘sun’ by adding more students = more lengths of string to the ‘X’ position. For each case. b. so that each time. Teachers Note: This doesn’t accurately represent the inverse square nature of the force (e. three strings from three students. the sun) holding one end of the string.) The general procedure will involve one student standing on the ‘X’ (i. for the weakest cases. The other student(s) will begin quickly walking (or a slow jog) along the lines (depicted above) near the person on the ‘X’. and ‘attempts’ to continue walking the straight line. etc. . even though the mass in the system is not changing.2. the strength of the force between two bodies gets stronger with closer distances.. moving off of the straight marked path. then have them start with the quadrupled length of string and gradually unfold it as they move to the farther lines). they have to use the same length of string each time. the force is 4 times weaker if the distance between the objects is doubled) but will at least give the general inverse dependence of the gravitational force on distance. which means that they have to double up and then quadruple the 8ft length for the two closer lines to walk (4ft and 2 ft. 3. the student’s path will be altered. rig something up so the student can grab the yarn as they walk by so they don’t have to stop). so the “string” (now multiple strings) holding the two bodies together is harder to break too. they first pick up 1 string from one student.

and the final kinetic energy will also be zero. Skein of yarn (cheap “Red Heart” brand polyester works well) Masking tape Yard Stick Cake donut (for demo. we’re left with: . So. you must have the initial energy equal the final energy (both kinetic and potential). in order for one object to be captured into orbit in the gravitational field of a larger object (like the sun capturing a planet). called the “escape velocity.” You can derive the escape velocity using conservation of energy. must come down. it no longer has any velocity. so once it’s reaches infinite. So the initial energy of an object thrown up from. since ‘v’ is zero. must come down” comes from. and discuss and even graph their results. the saying should really be “What goes up too slowly. the final potential energy will be 0 (since PE = GMm/∞ and 1/∞ = 0). It comes back down because it wasn’t going up fast enough to escape the attractive force of gravity pulling it back down. This means that the final kinetic energy will also be zero. Given that it is possible to escape an object’s gravitational pull. though you may have to point this out in the discussion. the escaping object must be traveling at a high enough velocity.” or else the attractive force will be greater and will pull the objects back together. the escape velocity is the minimum velocity needed to escape. which should help them understand the cases in which the force is stronger. the planet must pass close enough and slow enough by the sun. So to conserve energy. teachers don’t have to give the students the gravitational force equation or any preconceived ideas of what they should get. This is where the saying “what goes up. it must travel an infinitely large distance away. by the time it reaches its final destination (at infinite distance). In the scenario of an object escaping the gravitational force of another object.Materials Supplements 4. Intuition should tell students that more lengths of string will be stronger and more difficult to “break free” from than a single length. say the surface of the earth would be KE + PE. which must equal the final energy: (KE + PE)initial = (KE + PE)final Since the final destination of the object will be infinite. since by definition. where the kinetic energy of an object is given by KE = 1/2mv2 and the gravitational potential energy is PE = -GMm/r (it’s negative because the gravitational force resulting the potential energy is attractive and so said to be negative). Similarly. and to calculate the exact velocity or speed it needs to make its escape. 5. it’s final velocity will be zero.) To make this more open inquiry.) Have students record their experiences.) Escape Velocity: In order for an object to escape the gravitational pull of another object.

. they are not fully captured into orbit). above: 3c. but given their velocity.” Even more interesting is if at some speed. fast walk. their trajectory follows an open curve – parabola or hyperbole – so they feel the force of gravity which alters their straightline path – Newton’s 1st Law. 4 foot distance = double lengths of yarn. they will be captured into orbit.(1/2mv2 – GMm/r) = (0 + 0) Rearranging: Solve for v: 1/2mv2 = GMm/r ______ v = √(2GM/r) (i.) Variable speed: Have students discover their “escape” speed from the system. References Lesson by Kelly Denney and Katie Schlesinger from The Ohio State University . Have them move along the line at varying speeds (walk. etc. the square root of 2GM/r) So.. it will not be captured into orbit by a planet with mass M as long as it travels fast enough. but before they do. they break the string. They should find that at a slow speed. and distance from the “sun”. their straight line course is altered from its original path (i. Use the intermediate.e. You can include a supplement about escape velocity into this lesson very easily by adding a third variable to the cases in Step 3. slow jog. this shows that for an object of any mass traveling a distance r away from an object. they can “escape” the gravitational pull of the “sun. faster jog.e.) until they find out how fast they have to move before the string breaks. but when they move more quickly. mass.

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