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E. Abers

11.1 The Inverse Square Law

11.1.1 The Moon and Kepler’s Third Law

Things fall down, not in some other direction, because that’s where the earth is. The earth

is in some sense the cause of gravitational acceleration. Perhaps the power of the earth that

causes objects to accelerate downward weakens as you go out. The moon does, after all,

orbit the earth, approximately in a circle. Let’s compute its acceleration, and compare to

g.1

Actually, I did this computation earlier, but it is worth repeating here. As stated, the

radius of the moon’s orbit is about 3.8 × 108 meters. Its period is a month.

Note: The relevant period is the sidereal period, its period relative to a fixed direction

in space, about 27.3 days, or T = 2, 360, 000 seconds. One month is the synodic period,

the period between two new moons.

4π2 r 4π2 × 3.8 × 108

a= 2

= = 2.70 × 10−3 meters per sec per sec

T (2.36 × 106 )2

g 9.78

= 3626

a 2.7 × 10−3

whereas the ratio of the distances, in the two problems, is

= ≈ 60

rEarth 6.38 × 106

Very nearly, the acceleration due to the earth’s gravity seems to decrease inversely in pro-

portion to the square of the distance from the earth’s center.

Is this the general rule? If one could observe the accelerations of several objects, at a

variety of distances from the center of the earth, it could be checked, but all we have is

things near the surface and the moon. But for the sun, there is more data. Each of the

planets moves in an approximately circular orbit, so we can compute their accelerations and

compare, using again the formula

4π2 R

a=

T2

1 Read Chapter 6, sections 6-1 through 6-5. The remaining sections in Chapter 6 are not required, but

Physics 1A, Fall 2003 Universal Gravitation 2

where now r is the radius of a planet’s orbit, and T its period of revolution around the sun.

We could make a table of R and T for each planet, and compute a, but Kepler’s third

law saves us the trouble. R and T are not independent, but rather T 2 = kR3 for all the

planets, for some number k which is a constant. Therefore

4π2 R 4π2

a= =

kR3 kR2

The accelerations are indeed inversely proportional to the squares of the distances. Gravity is

not a constant, as we assumed earlier, studying motion near the earth’s surface; it diminishes

inversely as the square of the distance from the center.

This much was known in the early 1680’s to those few who followed “natural philosophy.”

Robert Hooke, whose discoveries you will learn more about later, posed the following ques-

tion: Suppose the acceleration of the planets towards the sun obeys a 1/r2 law, as Kepler’s

Third Law for circular orbits requires. But the orbits are not exactly circles. What is the

path in general of a planet obeying the inverse square law?

Hooke bet that he could solve the problem in a few months; The architect Sir Christopher

Wren and the astronomer Edmund Halley, took him on. Hooke managed a numerical or

graphical solution, but was never able to solve the problem in “closed form.”

It is clear today what Hooke’s difficulty was. The mathematics of his day was insufficient

to deal with continuously changing rates of change. For that, one needs the methods of the

calculus.

Realizing that the problem was more difficult that had been thought, Halley traveled to

Cambridge to discuss it with the reclusive Isaac Newton. Newton was already known for

his explanation of the nature of color, for the invention of the reflecting telescope, and as a

learned mathematician. Newton answered that he had solved, then mislaid, the solution to

the central scientific problem of his age!

Halley urged Newton to reconstruct his proof and publish it; the result was the Principia

Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis, in which the correct general methods for solving all

problems concerning the motion of objects was presented. The solution of the problem of

the planets – essentially proving Kepler’s first law – is one of the more difficult results in

the Principia.

11.2.1 Form of the Law of Gravity

Newton’s first law tells us how things move when there are no forces: forces are needed

to explain accelerations. The second law tells us quantitatively how much acceleration is

produced by forces. The third law states a property all forces must have. Finally, Newton

provider one example of a force – the force of gravity. The sun exerts a force on the earth

proportional to the inverse square of the distance. But Kepler’s third law says that it is

the accelerations of the planets, not the forces on them, that obey the inverse square law.

Physics 1A, Fall 2003 Universal Gravitation 3

Therefore the force of the sun on the earth — or any planet — must also be proportional

to the planets mass, so that the mass can cancel out in the acceleration:

1

Force on earth = F = constant × mearth ×

r2

The earth also exerts a force on the sun, which similarly is

1

Force on sun = F = constant × msun ×

r2

These must be the same numbers, by the third law! It follows that the force of gravity

of the sun on the earth, or the earth on the sun, is proportional to the mass of the sun and

the mass of the earth. The astonishing discovery is that the force of the sun’s gravitational

force on the earth is proportional not only to the mass of the earth, but also to the mass of

the sun. The mass of the sun or the earth, introduced in the second law as the inertia, the

resistance to acceleration, is also the strength of the gravitational force.

Gravitation is universal – everything attracts everything. The moon attracts the earth,

Jupiter the sun, and you the earth. The rule for the magnitude of the force between two

bodies of masses m1 and m2 is

m1 m2

F =G 2

r

The acceleration of m1 is F/m1 = Gm1 /r2. It is independent on m1 , as it is supposed to

be. Same for m2 .

The constant gravitational acceleration we experience here near the earth’s surface is

but a special case. It was of course one of the original observed facts which suggested the

universal law.

There is no logical reason why the same property of matter, the mass, appears in both the

law of gravitation and Newton’s second law. The strength of other forces do not depend on

an object’s mass. For example you probably have heard of Coulomb’s law, that tells us the

force between two charged objects. The force is

Q1Q2

F = constant ×

r2

where Q1 and Q2 are the objects’ electric charges. You will study this electrical force next

term.

Suppose we called the m’s that occur in the law of gravitation an object’s gravitational

mass, and for the moment used for it the letter N instead of m. That is the gravitational

force between two objects is

GN1N2

F =

r2

and call the number m that occurs is the second law an objects’ inertial mass. Then if an

object of gravitational mass N and inertial mass m is acted on by the gravitation attraction

of the earth, the force on it is

Nearth N

F =G

r2

Physics 1A, Fall 2003 Universal Gravitation 4

so its acceleration is

F N Nearth

a= = G 2

m m r

Now it might have been that the ratio N/m is different for different bodies. But it seems

that nature did not make that choice. We know ever since Galileo dropped a heavy ball

and a light ball off the tower of Pisa that the acceleration of two objects under the force

of gravity is independent of the objects mass. Later experiments have checked this identity

to very high accuracy. The upshot is that the ratio N/m is the same for everything. N/m

is a universal constant. Since it multiplies G, we can never measure it independently, so

it’s value is just absorbed into the definition of Newton’s constant G, and we say that

gravitational mass and inertial mass is the same for all objects. This is a profound and

powerful principle, called the principle of equivalence, and is at the foundation of the

modern theory of gravity, called the general theory of relativity.

The rule above gives the magnitude of the force of gravitational attraction. But force is a

vector. The vector way of writing it is: If r2 is the position of the object of mass m2 in a

coordinate system where the mass m1 is at the origin, then the force m1 exerts on m2 is

m1 m2 r

F=G

r3

Check that it has the right magnitude and direction.

In a general coordinate system, where r1 and r2 are the positions of the masses, the

force of 1 on 2 is

m1m2 (r2 − r1 )

F12 = G 3

|r2 − r1|

So Kepler’s third law is a consequence of the inverse square law of universal gravitation.

But what exactly is the r that goes into it? I have worked it out in the approximation that

the orbits are circles, but you already know they are ellipses. We were just lucky that the

planets’ orbits have small eccentricity.

For a general elliptical orbit, the answer is that T 2 is proportional to a3 , where a is the

major, or long axis of the ellipse. We will not prove that here, nor derive Kepler’s first law

from the force law, but it is not too hard and could easily be done at the end of the term if

there were a bit more time. You will learn it if you take the next level course in mechanics.

The second law is easier, it is a consequence of the conservation of angular momentum.

We’ll study that subject in a few weeks.

If enough of you are interested I will post some notes on Kepler’s laws after you study

energy and angular momentum.

Physics 1A, Fall 2003 Universal Gravitation 5

The force of the earth’s gravitational attraction on an object of mass m near the earth’s

surface is

GmMearth

F = 2

rearth

so its acceleration is

GMearth

g= 2

rearth

This provides the relation between g and G.

But now you might worry that it is not correct to say that the earth’s gravity here on the

surface is the same as if all the earth’s mass were located at the center. Newton worried

about this problem too. It delayed his writing the Principia for fifteen years, since Newton,

essentially, had to invent the integral calculus to solve the problem. Eventually he proved

the following: For any spherically symmetric mass distribution, the result of adding up the

gravitational forces due to each little piece of the sphere on an object outside is that the

force is given by GM m/r2, where M is the total mass and r the distance to the center. It

isn’t very hard to prove, but I won’t do it in this course. The upshot is that the magnitude

of the earth’s gravitational force on an object near its surface is

GM m

F =

REarth 2

whence one can indeed identify

GM

g=

REarth 2

Objects in free fall near the earth’s surface do indeed obey Kepler’s laws with respect to the

center of the earth, at least until the strike the surface and other forces act on them. How

is that possible? If an ellipse is very eccentric, then near the end far away from the focus,

the ellipse looks very nearly like a parabola. These are the parabolas of projectile motion,

which replace Kepler’s ellipses as long as the earth’s curvature can be ignored.

G is a universal constant. How can it be measured? Obviously not by comparing Galileo’s

g to the acceleration of the moon, or the planets to each other using Kepler’s third law.

Suppose we compare the attraction of the earth on something, to the attraction of the sun

on things.

Let a be the acceleration of the earth as it goes around the sun, and g the acceleration of

objects near the surface of the earth. Let re be the radius of the earth, and Re the radius

Physics 1A, Fall 2003 Universal Gravitation 6

GMS

a=

Re2

and

GMe

g=

re2

whence one can compute the ratio of the masses (exercise!) but not G. So now you can

know the mass of the sun, relative to the mass of the earth. But this measurement does not

give either mass independent of G.

By now it should be clear that to measure G you need to know the mass of both objects.

So to determine G from g you need you know the mass of the earth. Newton could guess

the earth’s mass roughly, since he know its volume and the density of dirt and water, but

no one really knew what the earth is made of inside.

Since everything attracts everything, there should be a force between two terrestrial

objects. It was finally measured by Henry Cavendish in 1798, over a century after Newton

proposed the inverse square law. is value is

G = 6.673 × 10−11 newtons per meter2 per kg2

Cavendish He used a “‘torsion pendulum,” with two known masses. There is a good de-

scription ion the book. He called the experiment “weighing the earth.”

11.4.1 Perturbations

All the examples treat one object under the attraction of a much larger object. Only in

that case is there the simplicity of Kepler’s laws. If we lived in a solar system with a double

star, like many are, the planets’ motions would be so complicated that nobody would ever

have figured out the inverse square law.

There are small effects, since everything attracts everything. Learn for instance about

the Cavendish torsion balance experiment he called ”weighing the earth” that let to the

measurement of G.

Even in our solar system, there are small corrections to Kepler’s laws. The attraction

on the earth by the other planets, principally Jupiter and Venus, cause the earth’s orbit,

instead of being exactly a closed curve, to “precess.” The perihelion, or aphelion, point in

a slightly different direction every year. Every century the axis of the orbit precesses nine

or ten minutes or arc because of the gravitation of the other planets.

These effects are calculated so precisely that they once led to the discovery of a new

planet. In the early nineteenth century astronomers were unable to account precisely for

the motions of the known planets. Uranus especially seemed not to obey Newton’s law

exactly. It was even suggested that perhaps the inverse square law is not exactly correct

so far from the sun. But Leverrier in France and others explained the discrepancy as due

to another, as yet unknown planet, and very elaborate computations let to the successful

prediction, in 1846, of the planet Neptune.

Physics 1A, Fall 2003 Universal Gravitation 7

The weight of an object varies slightly as you move around the earth, because of the earth’s

rotation. Suppose you Suspend a mass m from a spring scale at the north pole. A spring

scale is any device that measures the force W t. When it comes to rest, mg − W = 0, so

the scale reads W = mg.

Now do the same experiment at the equator. The vertical acceleration is not zero,

because of the earth’s rotation. Supposing g does not change, the scale reads W 0, where

v2

mg − W 0 = m

rearth

The weight is now

0 v2

W =m g−

rearth

What is the acceleration of a falling object at the equator? Well, if the force on it is the

weight W 0 above, its acceleration, by Newton’s second law, is2

W0 v2

g0 = =g−

m rearth

A television satellite, or a spy satellite, has to stay in the same place in the sky, as viewed

from the earth. How is this possible? We have worked out the period of a low orbit satellite

(about 87 minutes) and the moon (about 27 days). What is needed for a geosynchronous

satellite is that has a period of exactly one day (and it ought to be suspended over the

equator – why?). If the radius of its orbit is r, then, if T is the period,

v2 r GMearth

a= = 4π2 2 =

r T r2

or

GMearth 2 gR2earth 2

r3 = T = T

4π2 4π2

Plug in the numbers: You get r ≈ 43, 300 km This is the height (measured from the center

of the earth) of a geosynchronous satellite.

11-19-03

2 This is the right answer, but the derivation is a little glib. After all, why is it allowed to use a coordinate

system that is rotating. Careful analysis, which can get a bit complicated, shows that this is the right answer.

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