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The gravitational constant, approximately 6.673×10−11 N·(m/kg)2 and denoted by letter G, is an empirical physical constant involved in the calculation(s) of gravitational force between two bodies. It usually appears in Sir Isaac Newton's law of universal gravitation, and in Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity. It is also known as the universal gravitational constant, Newton's constant, and colloquially as Big G. It should not be confused with "little g" (g), which is the local gravitational field (equivalent to the free-fall acceleration), especially that at the Earth's surface.
According to the law of universal gravitation, the attractive force (F) between two bodies is directly proportional to the product of their masses (m1 and m2), and inversely proportional to the square of the distance, r, (inverse-square law) between them:
The constant of proportionality, G, is the gravitational constant.
The gravitational constant is a physical constant that is difficult to measure with high accuracy. In SI units, the 2010 CODATA-recommended value of the gravitational constant (with standard uncertainty in parentheses) is:
with relative standard uncertainty 1.2×10−4.
The dimensions assigned to the gravitational constant in the equation above—length cubed, divided by mass, and by time squared (in SI units, meters cubed per kilogram per second squared)—are those needed to balance the units of measurements in gravitational equations. However, these dimensions have fundamental significance in terms of Planck units; when expressed in SI units, the gravitational constant is dimensionally and numerically equal to the cube of the Planck length divided by the product of the Planck mass and the square of Planck time.
In many secondary school texts, the dimensions of G are derived from force in order to assist student comprehension:
In cgs, G can be written as:
G can also be given as:
Given the fact that the period P of an object in circular orbit around a spherical object obeys
where V is the volume inside the radius of the orbit, we see that
This way of expressing G shows the relationship between the average density of a planet and the period of a satellite orbiting just above its surface.
The gravitational force is extremely weak compared with other fundamental forces. For example, the gravitational force between an electron and proton one meter apart is approximately 10−67 N, whereas the electromagnetic force between the same two particles is approximately 10−28 N. Both these forces are weak when compared with the forces we are able to experience directly, but the electromagnetic force in this example is some 39 orders of magnitude (i.e. 1039) greater than the force of gravity—roughly the same ratio as the mass of the Sun compared to a microgram.
The gravitational constant appears in Newton's law of universal gravitation, but it was not measured until seventy-one years after Newton's death by Henry Cavendish with his Cavendish experiment, performed in 1798 (Philosophical Transactions 1798). Cavendish measured G implicitly, using a torsion balance invented by the geologist Rev. John Michell. He used a horizontal torsion beam with lead balls whose inertia (in relation to the torsion constant) he could tell by timing the beam's oscillation. Their faint attraction to other balls placed alongside the beam was detectable by the deflection it caused. Cavendish's aim was not actually to measure the gravitational constant, but rather to measure the Earth's density relative to water, through the precise knowledge of the gravitational interaction. In retrospect, the density that Cavendish calculated implies a value for G of 6.754 × 10−11 m3 kg−1 s−2.
The accuracy of the measured value of G has increased only modestly since the original Cavendish experiment. G is quite difficult to measure, as gravity is much weaker than other fundamental forces, and an experimental apparatus cannot be separated from the gravitational influence of other bodies. Furthermore, gravity has no established relation to other fundamental forces, so it does not appear possible to calculate it indirectly from other constants that can be measured more accurately, as is done in some other areas of physics. Published values of G have varied rather broadly, and some recent measurements of high precision are, in fact, mutually exclusive.
In the January 5, 2007 issue of Science (page 74), the report "Atom Interferometer Measurement of the Newtonian Constant of Gravity" (J. B. Fixler, G. T. Foster, J. M. McGuirk, and M. A. Kasevich) describes a new measurement of the gravitational constant. According to the abstract: "Here, we report a value of G = 6.693 × 10−11 cubic meters per kilogram second squared, with a standard error of the mean of ±0.027 × 10−11 and a systematic error of ±0.021 × 10−11 cubic meters per kilogram second squared."
Under the assumption that the physics of type Ia supernovae are universal, analysis of observations of 580 type Ia supernovae has shown that the gravitational constant has varied by less than one part in ten billion per year over the last nine billion years.
The quantity GM—the product of the gravitational constant and the mass of a given astronomical body such as the Sun or the Earth—is known as the standard gravitational parameter and is denoted . Depending on the body concerned, it may also be called the geocentric or heliocentric gravitational constant, among other names.
This quantity gives a convenient simplification of various gravity-related formulas. Also, for celestial bodies such as the Earth and the Sun, the value of the product GM is known much more accurately than each factor independently. Indeed, the limited accuracy available for G often limits the accuracy of scientific determination of such masses in the first place.
For Earth, using as the symbol for the mass of the Earth, we have
The standard gravitational parameter GM appears as above in Newton's law of universal gravitation, as well as in formulas for the deflection of light caused by gravitational lensing, in Kepler's laws of planetary motion, and in the formula for escape velocity.