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UPSC Physics Gravitation Gravitation


Category : UPSC



1.           Gravitation



  • Take a piece of thread. Tie a small stone at one end. Hold the other end of the thread and whirl it round. Before the thread is released, the stone moves in a circular path with a certain speed and changes direction at every point. The change in direction involves change in velocity or acceleration.
  • The force that causes this acceleration and keeps the body moving along the circular path is acting towards the centre. This force is called the centripetal (meaning 'centre- seeking’) force. In the absence of this force, the stone flies off along a straight line. This straight line will be a tangent to the circular path.
  • The motion of the moon around the earth is due to the centripetal force. The centripetal force is provided by the force of attraction of the earth. If there were no such force, the moon would pursue a uniform straight line motion.
  • It is seen that a falling apple is attracted towards the earth. Does the apple attract the earth? According to the third law of motion, the apple does attract the earth. But according to the second law of motion, for a given force, acceleration is inversely proportional to the mass of an object. The mass of an apple is negligibly small compared to that of the earth. So, we do not see the earth moving towards the apple. Extend the same argument for why the earth does not move towards the moon.
  • In our solar system, all the planets go around the Sun. By arguing the same way, we can say that there exists a force between the Sun and the planets.
  • From the above facts Newton concluded that not only does the earth attract an apple and the moon, but all objects in the universe attract each other. This force of attraction between objects is called the gravitational force.


2.           Universal Law of Gravitation



  • Every object in the universe attracts every other object with a force which is proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. The force is along the line joining the centres of two objects. This law is given by Newton.
  • Newton formulated the well-known laws of motion. He worked on theories of light and colour. He designed an astronomical telescope to carry out astronomical observations.
  • Newton was also a great mathematician. He invented a new branch of mathematics, called calculus. He used it to prove that for objects outside a sphere of uniform density, the sphere behaves as if the whole of its mass is concentrated at its centre.
  • The law is universal in the sense that it is applicable to all bodies, whether the bodies are big or small, whether they are celestial or terrestrial.


3.           Motion of Objects under the Influence of Gravitational Force of the Earth


  • The earth is not a perfect sphere. As the radius of the earth increases from the poles to the equator, the value of g becomes greater at the poles than at the equator.
  • We know that an object experiences acceleration during free fall. From, this acceleration experienced by an object is independent of its mass. This means that all objects hollow or solid, big or small, should fall at the same rate.
  • Italian Physicist Galileo (1564-1642) who recognised the fact that all bodies, irrespective of their masses, are accelerated towards the earth with a constant acceleration.
  • The earliest recorded model for planetary motions proposed by Ptolemy about 2000 years ago was a 'geocentric' model in which all celestial objects, stars, the sun and the planets, all revolved around the earth.
  • However a more elegant model in which the Sun was the center around which the planets revolved - the 'heliocentric' model - was already mentioned by Aryabhatta (5th century A.D.) in his treatise.
  • A thousand years later, a Polish monk named Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543) proposed a definitive model in which the planets moved in circles around a fixed central sun.


4.           Kepler's Laws



  • Johannes Kepler derived three laws, which govern the motion of planets. These are called Kepler's laws. These are :
    • The orbit of a planet is an ellipse with the Sun at one of the foci, as shown in the figure given below. In this figure 0 is the position of the Sun.
    • The line joining the planet and the Sun sweep equal areas in equal intervals of time. Thus, if the time of travel from A to B is the same as that from C to D, then the areas OAB and OCD are equal.
    • The cube of the mean distance of a planet from the Sun is proportional to the square of its orbital period T.


5.           Earth-Satellites and Gravitation



  • The force of attraction between a hollow spherical shell of uniform density and a point mass situated outside is just as if the entire mass of the shell is concentrated at the centre of the shell.
  • The force of attraction due to a hollow spherical shell of uniform density, on a point mass Situated inside it is zero.
  • As we go down below earth's surface, the acceleration due gravity decreases by a factor. The remarkable thing about acceleration due to earth's gravity is that it is maximum on its surface decreasing whether you go up or down.
  • Values on earth and the escape speed for the moon turns out to be 2.3 km/s, about five times smaller. This is the reason that moon has no atmosphere. Gas molecules if formed on the surface of the moon having velocities larger than this will escape the gravitational pull of the moon.
  • Earth satellites are objects which revolve around the earth. Their motion is very similar to the motion of planets around the Sun and hence Kepler's laws of planetary motion are equally applicable to them.
  • In particular, their orbits around the earth are circular or elliptic. Moon is the only natural satellite of the earth with a near circular orbit with a time period of approximately 27.3 days which is also roughly equal to the rotational period of the moon about its own axis.
  • The total energy of an circularly orbiting satellite is thus negative, with the potential energy being negative but twice is magnitude of the positive kinetic energy.
  • When the orbit of a satellite becomes elliptic, both the K.E. and P.E. vary from point to point. The total energy which remains constant is negative as in the circular orbit case. This is what we expect, since as we have discussed before if the total energy is positive or zero, the object escapes to infinity.
  • Satellites are always at finite distance from the earth and hence their energies cannot be positive or zero.


6.            India's Leap into Space


  • India entered the space age with the launching of the low orbit satellite Aryabhatta in 1975. In the first few years of its programme the launch vehicles were provided by the erstwhile Soviet Union. Indigenous launch vehicles were employed in the early 1980's to send the Rohini series of satellites into space.
  • The programme to send polar satellites into space began in late 1980's.
  • A series of satellites labelled IRS (Indian Remote Sensing Satellites) have been launched and this programme is expected to continue in future. The satellites have been employed for surveying, weather prediction and for carrying out experiments in space.
  • The INSAT (Indian National Satellite) series of satellites were designed and made operational for communications and weather prediction purposes beginning in 1982. European launch vehicles have been employed in the INSAT series.
  • India tested its geostationary launch capability in 2001 when it sent an experimental communications satellite (GSAT-1) into space.
  • In 1984 Rakesh Sharma became the first Indian astronaut.
  • The Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) is the umbrella organisation that runs a number of centre. Its main lauch centre at Sriharikota (SHAR) is 100 km north of Chennai.
  • The National Remote Sensing Agency (NRSA) is near Hyderabad. Its national centre for research in space and allied sciences is the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) at Ahmedabad.


7.           Geostationary and Polar Satellites



  • If the circular orbit is in the equatorial plane of the earth, such a satellite, having the same period as the period of rotation of the earth about its own axis would appear stationery viewed from a point on earth.
  • Satellites in a circular orbits around the earth in the equatorial plane with T = 24 hours are called Geostationery Satellites. Clearly, since the earth rotates with the same period, the satellite would appear fixed from any point on earth. It takes very powerful rockets to throw up a satellite to such large heights above the earth.
  • It is known that electromagnetic waves above a certain frequency are not reflected from ionosphere. Radio waves used for radio broadcast which are in the frequency range 2 MHz to 10 MHz, are below the critical frequency. They are therefore reflected by the ionosphere. Thus radio waves broadcast from an antenna can be received at points far away where the direct wave fail to reach on account of the curvature of the earth.
  • Waves used in television broadcast or other forms of communication have much higher frequencies and thus cannot be received beyond the line of sight. A Geostationary satellite, appearing fixed above the broadcasting station can however receive these signals and broadcast them back to a wide area on earth. The INSAT group of satellites sent up by India are one such group of geostationary satellites widely used for telecommunications in India.
  • Another class of satellites are called the Polar satellites. These are low altitude (h 1,500 to 800 km) satellites, but they go around the poles of the earth in a north-south direction whereas the earth rotates around its axis in an east-west direction. Since its time period is around 100 minutes it crosses any altitude many times a day. However, since its height h above the earth is about 500-800 km, a camera fixed on it can view only small strips of the earth in one orbit.
  • Adjacent strips are viewed in the next orbit, so that in effect the whole earth can be viewed strip by strip during the entire day. These satellites can view polar and equatorial regions at close distances with good resolution. Information gathered from such satellites is extremely useful for remote sensing, meterology as well as for environmental studies of the earth.


8.           Weightlessness


  • When an object is in free fall, it is weightless and this phenomenon is usually called the phenomenon of weightlessness.
  • In a satellite around the earth, every part and parcel of the satellite has an acceleration towards the center of the earth which is exactly the value of earth's acceleration due to gravity at that position.
  • Thus in the satellite everything inside it is in a state of free fall. This is just as if we were falling towards the earth from a height. Thus, in a manned satellite, people inside experience no gravity.
  • Gravity for us defines the vertical direction and thus for them there are no horizontal or vertical directions, all directions are the same. Pictures of astronauts floating in a satellite reflect show this fact.
  • An astronaut experiences weightlessness in a space satellite. This is not because the gravitational force is small at that location in space. It is because both the astronaut and the satellite are in "free fall" towards the Earth.

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