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The constant of gravity, or gravity constant, has two meanings: the constant in Newton’s universal law of gravitation (so is commonly called the gravitational constant, it also occurs in Einstein’s general theory of relativity); and the acceleration due to gravity at the Earth’s surface. The symbol for the first is G (big G), and the second g (little g).

Newton’s universal law of gravitation in words is something like “*the gravitational force between two objects is proportional to the mass of each and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them*“. Or something like F (the gravitational force between two objects) is m_{1} (the mass of one of the objects) times m_{2} (the mass of one of the other object) divided by r^{2} (the square of the distance between them). The “*is proportional to*” means all you need to make an equation is a constant … which is G.

In other words: F = Gm_{1}m_{2}/r^{2}

The equation for little g is simpler; from Newton we have F = ma (a force F acting on a mass m produces an acceleration a), so the force F on a mass m at the surface of the Earth, due to the gravitational attraction between the m and the Earth is F = mg.

Little g has been known from at least the time of Galileo, and is approximately 9.8 m/s^{2} – meters per second squared – it varies somewhat, depending on how high you are (altitude) and where on Earth you are (principally latitude).

Obviously, big G and little g are closely related; the force on a mass m at the surface of the Earth is both mg and GmM/r^{2}, where M is the mass of the Earth and r is its radius (in Newton’s law of universal gravitation, the distance is measured between the centers of mass of each object) … so g is just GM/r^{2}.

The radius of the Earth has been known for a very long time – the ancient Greeks had worked it out (albeit not very accurately!) – but the mass of the Earth was essentially unknown until Newton described gravity … and even afterwards too, because neither G nor M could be estimated independently! And that didn’t change until well after Newton’s death (in 1727), when Cavendish ‘weighed the Earth’ using a torsion balance and two pairs of lead spheres, in 1798.

Big G is extremely hard to measure accurately (to 1 part in a thousand, say); today’s best estimate is 6.674 28 (+/- 0.000 67) x 10^{-11} m^{3} kg^{-1} s ^{-2}.

The Constant Pull of Gravity: How Does It Work? is a good NASA webpage for students, on gravity; and the ESA’s GOCE mission webpage describes how satellites are being used to measure variations in little g (GOCE stands for Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer).

The Pioneer Anomaly: A Deviation from Einstein’s Gravity? is a Universe Today story related to big G, as is Is the Kuiper Belt Slowing the Pioneer Spacecraft?; GOCE Satellite Begins Mapping Earth’s Gravity in Lower Orbit Than Expected is one about little g.

No surprise that the Astronomy Cast episode Gravity covers both big G and little g!