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In the most common sense, gravitation or gravity is the agent that gives weight to objects with mass and causes them to fall to the ground when dropped.
In the scientific sense, gravitation is a natural phenomenon by which physical bodies appear to attract each other with a force proportional to their masses. The phenomenon of gravitation itself, however, is a byproduct of a more fundamental phenomenon described by general relativity, which suggests that spacetime is curved according to the presence of matter through a yettobe discovered mechanism.
Gravitation is one of the four fundamental interactions of nature, along with electromagnetism, and the nuclear strong force and weak force. In modern physics, the phenomenon of gravitation is most accurately described by the general theory of relativity by Einstein, in which the phenomenon itself is a consequence of the curvature of spacetime governing the motion of inertial objects. The simpler Newton's law of universal gravitation provides an accurate approximation for most physical situations including calculations as critical as spacecraft trajectory.
From a cosmological perspective, gravitation causes dispersed matter to coalesce, and coalesced matter to remain intact, thus accounting for the existence of planets, stars, galaxies and most of the macroscopic objects in the universe. It is responsible for keeping the Earth and the other planets in their orbits around the Sun; for keeping the Moon in its orbit around the Earth; for the formation of tides; for natural convection, by which fluid flow occurs under the influence of a density gradient and gravity; for heating the interiors of forming stars and planets to very high temperatures; and for various other phenomena observed on Earth and throughout the universe.
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Modern work on gravitational theory began with the work of Galileo Galilei in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. In his famous (though possibly apocryphal^{[1]}) experiment dropping balls from the Tower of Pisa, and later with careful measurements of balls rolling down inclines, Galileo showed that gravitation accelerates all objects at the same rate. This was a major departure from Aristotle's belief that heavier objects accelerate faster.^{[2]} Galileo correctly postulated air resistance as the reason that lighter objects may fall more slowly in an atmosphere. Galileo's work set the stage for the formulation of Newton's theory of gravity.
In 1687, English mathematician Sir Isaac Newton published Principia, which hypothesizes the inversesquare law of universal gravitation. In his own words, “I deduced that the forces which keep the planets in their orbs must [be] reciprocally as the squares of their distances from the centers about which they revolve: and thereby compared the force requisite to keep the Moon in her Orb with the force of gravity at the surface of the Earth; and found them answer pretty nearly.”^{[3]}
Newton's theory enjoyed its greatest success when it was used to predict the existence of Neptune based on motions of Uranus that could not be accounted for by the actions of the other planets. Calculations by both John Couch Adams and Urbain Le Verrier predicted the general position of the planet, and Le Verrier's calculations are what led Johann Gottfried Galle to the discovery of Neptune.
A discrepancy in Mercury's orbit pointed out flaws in Newton's theory. By the end of the 19th century, it was known that its orbit showed slight perturbations that could not be accounted for entirely under Newton's theory, but all searches for another perturbing body (such as a planet orbiting the Sun even closer than Mercury) had been fruitless. The issue was resolved in 1915 by Albert Einstein's new theory of general relativity, which accounted for the small discrepancy in Mercury's orbit.
Although Newton's theory has been superseded, most modern nonrelativistic gravitational calculations are still made using Newton's theory because it is a much simpler theory to work with than general relativity, and gives sufficiently accurate results for most applications involving sufficiently small masses, speeds and energies.
The equivalence principle, explored by a succession of researchers including Galileo, Loránd Eötvös, and Einstein, expresses the idea that all objects fall in the same way. The simplest way to test the weak equivalence principle is to drop two objects of different masses or compositions in a vacuum, and see if they hit the ground at the same time. These experiments demonstrate that all objects fall at the same rate when friction (including air resistance) is negligible. More sophisticated tests use a torsion balance of a type invented by Eötvös. Satellite experiments, for example STEP, are planned for more accurate experiments in space.^{[4]}
Formulations of the equivalence principle include:
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In general relativity, the effects of gravitation are ascribed to spacetime curvature instead of a force. The starting point for general relativity is the equivalence principle, which equates free fall with inertial motion, and describes freefalling inertial objects as being accelerated relative to noninertial observers on the ground.^{[7]}^{[8]} In Newtonian physics, however, no such acceleration can occur unless at least one of the objects is being operated on by a force.
Einstein proposed that spacetime is curved by matter, and that freefalling objects are moving along locally straight paths in curved spacetime. These straight paths are called geodesics. Like Newton's first law of motion, Einstein's theory states that if a force is applied on an object, it would deviate from a geodesic. For instance, we are no longer following geodesics while standing because the mechanical resistance of the Earth exerts an upward force on us, and we are noninertial on the ground as a result. This explains why moving along the geodesics in spacetime is considered inertial.
Einstein discovered the field equations of general relativity, which relate the presence of matter and the curvature of spacetime and are named after him. The Einstein field equations are a set of 10 simultaneous, nonlinear, differential equations. The solutions of the field equations are the components of the metric tensor of spacetime. A metric tensor describes a geometry of spacetime. The geodesic paths for a spacetime are calculated from the metric tensor.
Notable solutions of the Einstein field equations include:
The tests of general relativity included the following:^{[9]}
In the decades after the discovery of general relativity it was realized that general relativity is incompatible with quantum mechanics.^{[17]} It is possible to describe gravity in the framework of quantum field theory like the other fundamental forces, such that the attractive force of gravity arises due to exchange of virtual gravitons, in the same way as the electromagnetic force arises from exchange of virtual photons.^{[18]}^{[19]} This reproduces general relativity in the classical limit. However, this approach fails at short distances of the order of the Planck length,^{[17]} where a more complete theory of quantum gravity (or a new approach to quantum mechanics) is required.
Every planetary body (including the Earth) is surrounded by its own gravitational field, which exerts an attractive force on all objects. Assuming a spherically symmetrical planet, the strength of this field at any given point is proportional to the planetary body's mass and inversely proportional to the square of the distance from the center of the body.
The strength of the gravitational field is numerically equal to the acceleration of objects under its influence, and its value at the Earth's surface, denoted g, is approximately expressed below as the standard average.
g = 9.81 m/s^{2} = 32.2 ft/s^{2}
This means that, ignoring air resistance, an object falling freely near the Earth's surface increases its velocity by 9.81 m/s (32.2 ft/s or 22 mph) for each second of its descent. Thus, an object starting from rest will attain a velocity of 9.81 m/s (32.2 ft/s) after one second, 19.62 m/s (64.4 ft/s) after two seconds, and so on, adding 9.81 m/s (32.2 ft/s) to each resulting velocity. Also, again ignoring air resistance, any and all objects, when dropped from the same height, will hit the ground at the same time.
According to Newton's 3rd Law, the Earth itself experiences a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction to that which it exerts on a falling object. This means that the Earth also accelerates towards the object until they collide. Because the mass of the Earth is huge, however, the acceleration imparted to the Earth by this opposite force is negligible in comparison to the object's. If the object doesn't bounce after it has collided with the Earth, each of them then exerts a repulsive contact force on the other which effectively balances the attractive force of gravity and prevents further acceleration.
Under an assumption of constant gravity, Newton's law of universal gravitation simplifies to F = mg, where m is the mass of the body and g is a constant vector with an average magnitude of 9.81 m/s^{2}. The acceleration due to gravity is equal to this g. An initially stationary object which is allowed to fall freely under gravity drops a distance which is proportional to the square of the elapsed time. The image on the right, spanning half a second, was captured with a stroboscopic flash at 20 flashes per second. During the first ^{1}⁄_{20} of a second the ball drops one unit of distance (here, a unit is about 12 mm); by ^{2}⁄_{20} it has dropped at total of 4 units; by ^{3}⁄_{20}, 9 units and so on.
Under the same constant gravity assumptions, the potential energy, E_{p}, of a body at height h is given by E_{p} = mgh (or E_{p} = Wh, with W meaning weight). This expression is valid only over small distances h from the surface of the Earth. Similarly, the expression for the maximum height reached by a vertically projected body with velocity v is useful for small heights and small initial velocities only.
The discovery and application of Newton's law of gravity accounts for the detailed information we have about the planets in our solar system, the mass of the Sun, the distance to stars, quasars and even the theory of dark matter. Although we have not traveled to all the planets nor to the Sun, we know their masses. These masses are obtained by applying the laws of gravity to the measured characteristics of the orbit. In space an object maintains its orbit because of the force of gravity acting upon it. Planets orbit stars, stars orbit Galactic Centers, galaxies orbit a center of mass in clusters, and clusters orbit in superclusters. The force of gravity exerted on one object by another is directly proportional to the product of those objects' masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.
In general relativity, gravitational radiation is generated in situations where the curvature of spacetime is oscillating, such as is the case with coorbiting objects. The gravitational radiation emitted by the Solar System is far too small to measure. However, gravitational radiation has been indirectly observed as an energy loss over time in binary pulsar systems such as PSR B1913+16. It is believed that neutron star mergers and black hole formation may create detectable amounts of gravitational radiation. Gravitational radiation observatories such as LIGO have been created to study the problem. No confirmed detections have been made of this hypothetical radiation, but as the science behind LIGO is refined and as the instruments themselves are endowed with greater sensitivity over the next decade, this may change.
There are some observations that are not adequately accounted for, which may point to the need for better theories of gravity or perhaps be explained in other ways.
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