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Department of Physics
Physics 8.901: Astrophysics I

Spring Term 2004

PROBLEM SET 1 (corrected)

NOTE ON CORRECTIONS: Minor typos in the first equation of Problem 2 and in Problem 3b have
been corrected. Also, note that parts (b) and (c) of Problem 2 are somewhat flawed, in that the premise that
the data points will lie on a straight line is not in fact true for samples of different composition. You may
omit parts (b) and (c). As an extra credit question, note the addition of an optional part (d) for Question 2.
Due: Thursday, February 12 in class
Reading: Phillips, The Physics of Stars, Chapters 1.
1. Historical astronomy: Fundamental length scales. Accurately determining distances and sizes in
astrophysics remains a fundamental and challenging problem to this day. However, a number of surprisingly accurate measurements can be made simply with the naked eye. The ancient Greek philosopher
Aristotle (c.384322 B.C.) was able to deduce that the Earth was spherical from observations like the
shape of the Earths shadow during lunar eclipses and the changing view of stars in the sky during
travel from north to south. A number of fundamental length scales in our solar system were also
correctly deduced by the ancient Greeks.
(a) Size of the Earth. Eratosthenes (c.276196 B.C.) deduced the size of the spherical Earth using
the following facts: (1) On a particular summer day each year, the Sun penetrated to the bottom
of a very deep well (and thus was directly overhead this point is called the zenith) in the town
of Syene (now Aswan); (2) On the same day in Alexandria, the Sun at mid-day was 7 south of
the zenith; (3) Alexandria was north of Syene by a distance of just under 5000 stadia, where 1
stadium is about 160 meters. Eratosthenes assumed that the Sun is sufficiently distant that its
rays can be treated as parallel. Use these facts to reproduce Eratostheness inference of the radius
of the Earth. (You may use the value of .) Compare this to the modern value of 6378 km.
(b) Size and distance of the Moon. Aristarchus (c.310233 B.C.) calculated these using information from a lunar eclipse. Use Timothy Ferriss composite photograph of a lunar eclipse (on the
web at to make a similar calculation. The diagram below indicates the relevant geometry. You should make use of small angle approximations
where appropriate.
Western Limb


Center of Solar Disk

Umbral Shadow



Center of Solar Disk
Eastern Limb

i. Assume that only the darkest part of the Earths shadow (the umbra) corresponds to total
eclipse. Estimate the diameter of the circle roughly corresponding to the umbral shadow on

the composite image, and also the diameter of one of the lunar images. Note that the center
of the shadow does not lie on the line connecting the path of Moons center why not?
ii. Compute the radius of the Moon compared to that of the Earth. Be sure to account for the
proper geometry of the umbral shadow at the distance of the Moon; for this purpose, you may
take the angular diameter of both the Sun and the Moon to be 0.5 . Estimate the uncertainty
in your answer, given the uncertainty in your estimate of the diameter of the umbral shadow.
Compare to the modern value of 6378/1738=3.67.
iii. Taking the angular diameter of the Moon to be 0.5 , calculate the Earth-Moon distance D
in terms of the Earths radius.
(c) Distance to the Sun. Aristarchus also estimated this. In the diagram below, the Moon at Q
is at first quarter, so that the angle EQS is 90 . (Note that EQ is not perpendicular to ES.)
The interval from new Moon (at position N ) to first quarter (at Q) is 35 min shorter than that
from first quarter to full Moon (at F ). Given that the lunar synodic period (the interval between
two identical lunar phases) is 29.53 d, estimate the Earth-Sun distance (ES) in terms of the
Earth-Moon distance.



2. The age of the Sun. How old is the Sun? Two things are certain: the Sun is older than the Solar
System, and the Solar System is as old as the oldest rocks in the Solar System. In practice, tectonic
activity gives rise to rocks with a wide range of ages, but the oldest terrestrial rocks, and also the
oldest rocks from meteors and from the Moon, have ages approaching 4.55 109 years. This sets a
lower limit to the age of the Sun.
In this problem, we illustrate how the naturally occuring isotopes of uranium, 235 U and 238 U, can be
used to determine the age of rocks. Both isotopes decay via a sequence of -decays and -decays to
form stable isotopes of lead; the decay chain of 235 U ends up with 207 Pb, and the decay chain of 238 U
ends up with 206 Pb. As a result, the number of uranium nuclei in a rock decays exponentially with
time as:
N5 (t) = N5 (0)e5 t andN8 (t) = N8 (0)e8 t ,
where the last digit of the isotope mass number has been used as a subscript label. The decay
constants 5 and 8 for the two isotopes correspond to half-lives of T5 = ln 2/5 = 0.7 109 years
and T8 = ln 2/8 = 4.5 109 years. The magnitudes of these half-lives are ideally suited to the
determination of rock ages which are over a billion years old.
Now consider a set of rock samples which were formed at the same time, but with different chemical
composition. They differ chemically because different chemical elements are affected differently by
the processes of rock formation. However, rock formation processes do not favor one isotope over
another. For example, on formation, the relative abundances of 235 U and 238 U should be the same in
every sample. Similarly, the relative abundances of 207 Pb and 206 Pb should also be the same in every
sample. However, these abundances will change with time as the uranium isotopes decay into lead.

(a) Consider the ratio of the increase in the number of 207 Pb nuclei relative to the increase in the
number of 206 Pb nuclei. Show that this ratio is the same for all rock samples which were formed
at the same time, and show it is given by

N5 (t) exp(5 t) 1
N7 (t) N7 (0)
N6 (t) N6 (0)
N8 (t) exp(8 t) 1
(b) (You may omit this part: see correction note on first page) Consider a graph in which the
measured abundances in the rock samples of 207 Pb and 206 Pb are plotted, with N7 (t) along the
y-axis and N6 (t) along the x-axis. Show that a straight line will be obtained if all the samples
were formed at the same time.
(c) (You may omit this part: see correction note on first page) Given that the current ratio of
naturally occurring 235 U to 238 U is 0.0071, evaluate the gradient of the straight line for the rock
samples of age 109 years, 3 109 years, and 5 109 years.
(d) Extra credit: As noted in the correction on page 1, the approach described in parts (b) and (c)
above is not completely correct. For extra credit, consult suitable resources in the library or on
the web and summarize briefly the correct explanation of how uranium-lead radioactive dating is
used for determining ages of old rocks.
3. Central pressure in stars. Useful bounds can be set on the pressure at the center of a star without
detailed structure calculations. Consider a star of mass M and radius R. Let P (r) be the the pressure
at a distance r from the center and m(r) be the mass enclosed by a sphere of radius r.
(a) Show that in hydrostatic equilibrium, the function P (r) + Gm2 (r)/8r4 decreases with r. Hence
show that the central pressure satisfies the inequality
1 4
Ghi4/3 M 2/3 ,
Pc >
6 3
where hi is the mean density.
(b) If you assume that the density (r) decreases with r (which is reasonable), it is possible to derive
a tighter lower bound and a useful upper bound on the central pressure. Show that
1 4
Ghi4/3 M 2/3 .
Pc >
2 3
(c) In addition, show that
Pc <



c M

where c is the central density.

4. The Kepler problem: hyperbolic motion. In class, we derived the Kepler equation for elliptical
motion, t = e sin , which relates the eccentric anomaly to the time t since pericenter passage,
the eccentricity e 1, and the orbital angular frequency . For hyperbolic motion, the analog of the
eccentric anomaly is the angle 0 , defined such that the trajectory can be written as r = a(e cosh 0 1),
where e > 1 and a(e 1) is the distance of closest approach to the focus (the pericenter distance).
Find an analog to the Kepler equation for hyperbolic motion, which specifies the time t since closest
approach as a function of 0 .

5. Tidal evolution of the Earth-Moon system. In this problem, you will compute the evolution of
the Earth-Moon system by considering the tidal coupling between the Moons orbit and the Earths
rotation. Angular momentum may be exchanged between these two components but must be conserved
overall. Energy may be lost from the system via the heat generated by tidal friction. You should neglect
any effects due to the rotation of the Moon.
(a) Write down expressions for the total energy E and total angular momentum J of the EarthMoon system. Some useful symbols will be the Earths angular rotation frequency ; the Moons
(Keplerian) orbital frequency ; the masses of the Earth and Moon, Me and Mm ; the Earths
moment of inertia I; and the mean separation of the Earth and Moon, a.
(b) Use the equation for J to eliminate from the energy equation.
(c) Show that the energy equation can be cast into the dimensionless form
 = + (j s1/2 )2 ,
where  is the total energy in units of (Gme mm /2a0 ), j is the total angular momentum in units
of (a20 0 ), s = a/a0 is the dimensionless separation, is the reduced mass, and the subscript
0 refers to values at the present epoch in history.
(d) Find numerical values for and j. Look up the masses of the Earth and Moon, and take the
Earths moment of inertia to be (2/5)Me Re2 and a0 = 3.84 105 km.
(e) Graph the dimensionless energy equation to find the two values of s for which  is an extremum.
(f) Find the same two values of s quantitatively by differentiating the energy equation and solving the
resulting nonlinear equation numerically by the Newton-Raphson method or some other scheme.
Show that = at these orbital separations. Find the corresponding orbital period of the Moon
and rotation period of the Earth.
(g) Find the difference in energy E between the current epoch and the time in the future when the
Earths rotation and the Moons orbit will be synchronous.
(h) Estimate the rate of energy dissipation due to tidal friction by assuming that, twice per day, the
top 1-m layer of the oceans is lifted by 1-m and then lowered. Further assume that a few percent
of this mechanical energy is dissipated as heat.
(i) From the energy dissipation rate and total energy E that must be lost in order for the Earth
to come into rotational equilibrium with the Moons orbit, estimate the time (from the current
epoch) when this equilibrium configuration will be reached.