All Astronautical Evolution posts in 2015:

Britain Takes the Wrong Approach to Manned Spaceflight (Dec.) (Comments)

“Drowning in Process” (Nov.)

Does Intergalactic SETI Make Any Sense? (Oct.)

SETI and Sanity (Oct.)

SpaceX, SpaceY, SpaceZ (Sept.)

A Letter to Britain’s New Space Minister (June)

Mars: 25 Years After Mars Direct – Discussion (May)

The Astronist Mars Strategy (May)

Mars: Still So Distant, 25 Years After Mars Direct (May)

The Mariner Anniversary Calendar for Mars (April)

Mars: An Awful or an Awesome Place? (April)

Should We Phone ET? (March)

More Pluto Controversy (Feb.)

The Pluto Controversy (Jan.)

New in 2020:

Download science fiction stories here

AE posts:

2022: What’s to do on Mars?…

2021: New space company Planetopolis…

2020: Cruising in Space…

2019: The Doomsday Fallacy, SpaceX successes…

2018: I, Starship, atheism versus religion, the Copernican principle…

2017: Mars, Supercivilisations, METI…

2016: Stragegic goal for manned spaceflight…

2015: The Pluto Controversy, Mars, SETI…

2014: Skylon, the Great Space Debate, exponential growth, the Fermi “paradox”…

2013: Manned spaceflight, sustainability, the Singularity, Voyager 1, philosophy, ET…

2012: Bulgakov vs. Clarke, starships, the Doomsday Argument…

2011: Manned spaceflight, evolution, worldships, battle for the future…

2010: Views on progress, the Great Sociology Dust-Up…

Chronological index

Subject index

General essays:

Index to essaysincluding:

Talk presented to students at the International Space University, May 2016

Basic concepts of Astronautical Evolution

Options for Growth and Sustainability

Mars on the Interstellar Roadmap (2015)

The Great Sociology Debate (2011)

Building Selenopolis (2008)


Issue 110, 14 February 2015 – 46th Apollo Anniversary Year

Site home Chronological index About AE

More Pluto Controversy: Centres of Gravity

Since January’s post, in which I offered a comprehensive practical solution to the ongoing problem of how to classify planets, there has been some discussion revolving around the centre of gravity, or barycentre, of a system.

The suggestion has been made that, according to the current IAU definitions, even Jupiter does not count as a planet because the barycentre of the Jupiter–Sun system lies 46,000 km above the surface of the Sun.

Against this contention, I should like to say four things.

Solar System barycentre

(1) The wording “X orbits Y” is commonly understood to mean that X orbits the centre of gravity of the X–Y system. So for example we speak of the Moon orbiting Earth, when in fact Earth is by no means a stationary partner, and the resulting wobble of our planet helps produce the ocean tides.

This is on a par with when we talk about the Sun, Moon and stars “rising” or “setting”, where we also use for convenience a popular term which is understood as shorthand for a more complex reality. The astronomers at the IAU will certainly have intended “orbits the Sun” as an abbreviation for “orbits [the centre of mass of the system whose most massive member is] the Sun”.

(2) Whether the barycentre is above or below the surface of the primary does not have any particular physical significance, as the barycentre is only a theoretical mathematical point. I do not see that the Jupiter–Sun system is dynamically different from the Saturn–Sun system, or from the system containing 51 Pegasi and its “hot Jupiter” planet.

(3) The statement that the Jupiter–Sun barycentre is above the surface of the Sun is only part of the story, because in reality Jupiter and the other planets, as well as the Sun itself, actually orbit the barycentre of the Solar System as a whole. But this barycentre is sometimes above, sometimes below that surface, mainly depending upon whether Jupiter and Saturn are on the same side of the Sun or on opposite sides. This is shown in the diagram above, borrowed from Wikipedia.

(4) Finally, consider the case of Epsilon Eridani. If we take the data from the Open Exoplanet Catalogue (which used to have a pretty animation, but for some reason it’s not showing now), and if my rough calculation is correct, we find that the barycentre of the planet–star system is above the stellar surface when the planet is at apoastron, below it when the planet is at periastron. (These data are still a bit uncertain, but there will surely be similar cases elsewhere.) Thus whether the barycentre is above or below the star’s surface may well change back and forth during the course of a single orbit.

Further on Pluto specifically: Centauri Dreams has posted a good animation of Pluto and Charon orbiting each other, as seen from the long-range reconnaissance camera on the approaching New Horizons spacecraft at a range of about 200 million km. Again, the barycentre is outside the body of Pluto.

Some have therefore suggested calling the Pluto–Charon system a “double planet” (by which they actually mean a double satellite, i.e. no primary in the system). But again, all planets with satellites wobble to some extent, and Pluto–Charon is hardly fundamentally different from Earth–Moon. Pluto is the primary body by almost an order of magnitude in mass. Furthermore, there seems to be a clear trend, at least in our own system, for satellites to be more massive relative to their primary the smaller that primary is. The barycentre of a planet with a large satellite is therefore more likely to be outside the body of the planet in the cases of dwarf planets and asteroids, and the distinguishing feature of such systems is therefore not the position of the barycentre but their small size relative to terran and giant planets.

Meanwhile, the nonsense about Pluto having been “demoted” will surely evaporate once New Horizons has reached it this summer and revealed a world of planetary interest and complexity!

Please send in comments by e-mail.
Interesting and relevant comments will be added to this page.

Site home Chronological index About AE