Astronomical Concepts – Week 2

The main topics this week were the solar system, gravity and the tidal effect. I have previously written on my blog about the solar system so for this entry I will just write about gravity and the tidal effect.

The two main theories of gravity come from Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, both are used today, both are brilliant and vastly different. Gravity is one of the 4 main forces of nature, it works on grand scales, the great sculpture of the universe. Our Milky Way galaxy is locked in a gravitational embrace with Andromeda and in a few billion years the two galaxies will collide, just one example of the power of gravity. It holds galaxies together over billions of kilometres.

Gravity is the weakest of the four forces, yet it is so influential. The four fundamental forces of nature are gravity, weak, strong and electromagnetic. Well gravity is by far the weakest, certainly it is very weak here on Earth, but out there in the universe it is quite different. Stand on a planet more massive than ours and you would quickly notice the immense power of gravity. Stand on a neutron star and you would be ripped apart very quickly.

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Newton realised that when objects fall to the Earth their must be a force acting on the object, reaching up and pulling it down. He stated that the force of gravity is always attractive, and affects everything with mass. Newton was also able to show that objects with different masses fall at the same rate because an object’s acceleration due to the force of gravity depends only on the mass of the object pulling it, such as a planet.

Newton’s cannon was a thought experiment that demonstrated his theory further. He imagined firing a cannon ball from the top of a mountain. Without the force of gravity acting on the cannon ball it would simply travel in a straight line. If gravity is present then the cannon ball’s path will depend on its speed. If it is slow moving it will fall down to the surface, if it is travelling fast enough it will go into orbit around the planet and if it reaches the escape velocity it will leave the orbit all togehter.

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Einstein has a different approach. Einstein says that gravity is not a force but rather a property of space-time geometry. Objects in space, such as planets around a star are all attempting to travel in a straight line through space but that the curvature of the fabric of space means objects are constantly falling towards the mass exerting gravity. Einstein says when you are falling around an object you have cancelled out gravity. Astronauts on the International Space Station are weightless because they are continuously falling to Earth. There is gravity where they are, they are travelling at a speed to stay in orbit around the Earth. The astronauts are continually falling to the Earth but they never reach it, that is why they’re weightless. Being weightless means you are in free fall. When you are in free fall you cancel out gravity. Einstein’s elevator thought experiment explains his theory in more detail, read about it here.

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Tidal forces are significant across our solar system. Here on Earth we experience tidal effects thanks to the moon. The Earth experiences two high tides, one on the side of the Earth closest to the moon as the moon pulls the water towards it and on the opposite side as the moon pulls the Earth away from it.

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An extreme case of tidal forces in the solar system is the heating of the moon Io around Jupiter. Jupiter is very massive so the effects on Io are huge,  Jupiter pulls Io inwards and the other moons away from Io pull it the other way, causing Io to distort in shape. This constant change results in lots of friction which in turn drives strong volcanic activity on the surface of Io. Io is the most volcanically active body in the solar system and its surface is constantly changing with large dark spots on the surface caused by collapsed volcanoes.

Our moon is also tidally locked, meaning we see the same side of the moon all the time. It spins once on its axis as long as it takes it to orbit the Earth once, so we always see the same face. The constant tugging from the Earth on the moon has caused this locking to happen.

So what is gravity?

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Can’t wait for week 3 – the outer planets.

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