Bringing You All The Important Animation Related News Established 15,000 B.C. Volume 37, January 1687. The Center of Mass for a Binary System If you think about it a moment, it may seem a little strange that in Kepler's Laws the Sun is fixed at a point in space and the planet revolves around it. Why is the Sun privileged? Kepler had rather mystical ideas about the Sun, endowing it with almost god-like qualities that justified its special place. However Newton, largely as a corollary of his 3rd Law, demonstrated that the situation actually was more symmetrical than Kepler imagined and that the Sun does not occupy a privileged postion; in the process he modified Kepler's 3rd Law. Consider the diagram shown to the right. We may define a point called the center of mass between two objects through the equations where R is the total separation between the centers of the two objects. The center of mass is familiar to anyone who has ever played on a see-saw. The fulcrum point at which the see-saw will exactly balance two people sitting on either end is the center of mass for the two persons sitting on the see-saw. Newton's Modification of Kepler's Third Law Because for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, Newton realized that in the planet-Sun system the planet does not orbit around a stationary Sun. Instead, Newton proposed that both the planet and the Sun orbited around the common center of mass for the planet-Sun system. He then modified Kepler's 3rd Law to read, where P is the planetary orbital period and the other quantities have the meanings described above, with the Sun as one mass and the planet as the other mass. (As in the earlier discussion of Kepler's 3rd Law, this form of the equation assumes that masses are measured in solar masses, times in Earth years, and distances in astronomical units.) Notice the symmetry of this equation: since the masses are added on the left side and the distances are added on the right side, it doesn't matter whether the Sun is labeled with 1 and the planet with 2, or vice-versa. One obtains the same result in either case. (Go ahead and try it!) Now notice what happens in Newton's new equation if one of the masses (either 1 or 2; remember the symmetry) is very large compared with the other. In particular, suppose the Sun is labeled as mass 1, and its mass is much larger than the mass for any of the planets. Then the sum of the two masses is always approximately equal to the mass of the Sun, and if we take ratios of Kepler's 3rd Law for two different planets the masses cancel from the ratio and we are left with the original form of Kepler's 3rd Law: Neat huh? Thus Kepler's 3rd Law is approximately valid because the Sun is much more massive than any of the planets and therefore Newton's correction is small. The data that Kepler had access to was not good enough to show this small effect. However, detailed observations made after Kepler show that Newton's modified form of Kepler's 3rd Law is in better accord with the data than Kepler's original form. Score one for Newton, hah! Back to Previous Page Back to History Timeline