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Physics 1A, Fall 2003

E. Abers

11 Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation

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
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.

The acceleration of the moon is

4π2 r 4π2 × 3.8 × 108
a= 2
= = 2.70 × 10−3 meters per sec per sec
T (2.36 × 106 )2

The acceleration of the moon is much smaller than g. The ratio is

g 9.78
= 3626
a 2.7 × 10−3
whereas the ratio of the distances, in the two problems, is

rMoon 3.8 × 108

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

you should find them interesting.

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.

11.1.2 A Difficult Mathematical Problem

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
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 Universal Gravitation

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.
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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:
Force on earth = F = constant × mearth ×
The earth also exerts a force on the sun, which similarly is
Force on sun = F = constant × msun ×
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
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.

11.2.2 Gravitational Mass and Inertial Mass

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

11.2.3 Vector Form of the Law

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
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|

11.2.4 Kepler’s Laws

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.
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11.2.5 Galileo’s Constant

The force of the earth’s gravitational attraction on an object of mass m near the earth’s
surface is
F = 2
so its acceleration is
g= 2
This provides the relation between g and G.

11.2.6 Effect of the Size of the Attracting Mass

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
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.

11.3 The Value of Newton’s Constant

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.

11.3.1 The Mass of the Sun

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
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of its orbit. Then

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.

11.3.2 Weighing the Earth

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 Other Simple Effects

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.
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11.4.2 The Rotation of the Earth

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

mg − W 0 = m
The weight is now  
0 v2
W =m g−
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

11.4.3 Geosynchronous Orbits

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
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.

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.