November 26th, 2015

Why doesn’t the Moon smash into the Earth?

Because it’s in orbit. But can you explain why this is?

I’m currently writing two non-fiction children’s books about the Universe and Earth. In order to explain certain concepts simply, I’m finding I have to gain a much deeper understanding of them myself. Proof of what Einstein said: ‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well’.

Searching for explanations to the question of why the Moon doesn’t get pulled into the Earth by its greater gravity, I found a lot of perplexingly vague answers. But I also found this excellent explanation by one Mark Eichenlaub on StackExchange, illustrated with a beautiful diagram by Isaac Newton:

The moon does not fall to Earth because it is in an orbit.

One of the most difficult things to learn about physics is the concept of force. Just because there is a force on something does not mean it will be moving in the direction of the force. Instead, the force influences the motion to be a bit more in the direction of the force than it was before.

For example, if you roll a bowling ball straight down a lane, then run up beside it and kick it towards the gutter, you apply a force towards the gutter, but the ball doesn’t go straight into the gutter. Instead it keeps going down the lane, but picks up a little bit of diagonal motion as well.

Imagine you’re standing at the edge of a cliff 100m tall. If you drop a rock off, it will fall straight down because it had no velocity to begin with, so the only velocity it picks up is downward from the downward force.

If you throw the rock out horizontally, it will still fall, but it will keep moving out horizontally as it does so, and falls at an angle. (The angle isn’t constant – the shape is a curve called a parabola, but that’s relatively unimportant here.) The the force is straight down, but that force doesn’t stop the rock from moving horizontally.

If you throw the rock harder, it goes further, and falls at a shallower angle. The force on it from gravity is the same, but the original velocity was much bigger and so the deflection is less.

Now imagine throwing the rock so hard it travels one kilometer horizontally before it hits the ground. If you do that, something slightly new happens. The rock still falls, but it has to fall more than just 100m before it hits the ground. The reason is that the Earth is curved, and so as the rock traveled out that kilometer, the Earth was actually curving away underneath of it. In one kilometer, it turns out the Earth curves away by about 10 centimeters – a small difference, but a real one.

As you throw the rock even harder than that, the curving away of the Earth underneath becomes more significant. If you could throw the rock 10 kilometers, the Earth would now curve away by 10 meters, and for a 100 km throw the Earth curves away by an entire kilometer. Now the stone has to fall a very long way down compared to the 100m cliff it was dropped from.

Check out the following drawing. It was made by Isaac Newton, the first person to understand orbits. IMHO it is one of the greatest diagrams ever made.


What it shows is that if you could throw the rock hard enough, the Earth would curve away from underneath the rock so much that the rock actually never gets any closer to the ground. It goes all the way around in the circle and might hit you in the back of the head!

This is an orbit. It’s what satellites and the moon are doing. We can’t actually do it here close to the surface of the Earth due to wind resistance, but on the surface of the moon, where there’s no atmosphere, you could indeed have a very low orbit.

This is the mechanism by which things “stay up” in space.

Gravity gets weaker as you go further out. The Earth’s gravity is much weaker at the moon than at a low-earth orbit satellite. Because gravity is so much weaker at the moon, the moon orbits much more slowly than the International Space Station, for example. The moon takes one month to go around. The ISS takes a few hours. An interesting consequence is that if you go out just the right amount in between, about six Earth radii, you reach a point where gravity is weakened enough that an orbit around the Earth takes 24 hours. There, you could have a “geosynchronous orbit”, a satellite that orbits so that it stays above the same spot on Earth’s equator as Earth spins.

Although gravity gets weaker as you go further out, there is no cut-off distance. In theory, gravity extends forever. However, if you went towards the sun, eventually the sun’s gravity would be stronger than the Earth’s, and then you wouldn’t fall back to Earth any more, even lacking the speed to orbit. That would happen if you went about .1% of the distance to the sun, or about 250,000 km, or 40 Earth radii. (This is actually less than the distance to the moon, but the moon doesn’t fall into the Sun because it’s orbiting the sun, just like the Earth itself is.)

So the moon “falls” toward Earth due to gravity, but doesn’t get any closer to Earth because its motion is an orbit, and the dynamics of the orbit are determined by the strength of gravity at that distance and by Newton’s laws of motion.

Still, it will be hard to condense this into a few short sentences for kids.

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