How Fast is Gravity?

How long would it take for the gravitational well created by the Sun to disappear, and the Earth and the rest of the planets fly off into space?

In the very first episode of the Guide to Space, a clean shaven version of me, hunched over in my basement explained how long it takes for light to get from the Sun to the Earth. To answer that question, it takes light about 8 minutes and 20 seconds to make the trip.

In other words, if the Sun suddenly disappeared from space itself, we’d still see it shining in the sky for over 8 minutes before the everything went dark. Martians would take about 12 minutes to notice the Sun was gone, and New Horizons which is nearly at Pluto wouldn’t see a change for over 4 hours.

Although this idea is a little mind-bending, I’m sure you’ve got your head wrapped around it. We’ve sure gone on about it here on this show. The further you look into space, the further you’re looking back in time because of the speed of light, but have you ever considered the speed of gravity?

Let’s go back to that original example and remove the Sun again. How long would it take for the gravitational well created by the Sun to disappear.

When would the Earth and the rest of the planets fly off into space without the Sun holding the whole Solar System together with its gravity? Would it happen instantly, or would it take time for the information to reach Earth?

It sounds like a simple question, but it’s actually really tough to tell. The force of gravity, compared to other forces in the Universe, is actually pretty weak. It’s practically impossible to test in the laboratory.

According to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, distortions in spacetime caused by mass – also known as gravity – will propagate out at the speed of light. In other words, the light from the Sun and the gravity of the Sun should disappear at exactly the same time from the Earth’s perspective.

But that’s just a theory and a bunch of fancy math. Is there any way to test this out in reality? Astronomers have figured a way to deduce this indirectly by watching the interactions with massive objects in space.

Twin pulsars.  Credit: Michael Kramer, University of Manchester

In the binary system PSR 1913+16, there’s a pair of pulsars orbiting each other within just a few times bigger than the width of the Sun. As they spin around each other, the pulsars warp the spacetime themselves by releasing gravitational waves. And this release of gravitational waves causes the pulsars to slow down.

It’s amazing that astronomers can even measure this orbital decay, but the even more amazing part is that they use this process to measure the speed of gravity. When they did the calculations, astronomers determined the speed of gravity to be within 1% of the speed of light – that’s close enough.

Scientists have also used careful observations of Jupiter to get at this number. By watching how Jupiter’s gravity warps the light from a background quasar as it passes in front, they were able to determine that the speed of gravity is between 80% and 120% of the speed of light. Again, that’s close enough.

So there you go. The speed of gravity equals the speed of light. And should the Sun suddenly disappear, we’ll be glad to get all the bad news at the same time.

Gravity is a harsh mistress. Tell us a story about a time gravity was too fast for you. Put it in the comments below.

Precession of the Equinoxes

Semi Major Axis

When he was first compiling his famous star catalogue in the year 129 BCE the Greek astronomer Hipparchus noticed that the positions of the stars did not match up with the Babylonian measurements that he was consulting. According to these Chaldean records, the stars had shifted in a rather systematic way, which indicated to Hipparchus that it was not the stars themselves that had moved but the frame of reference – i.e. the Earth itself.

Such a motion is called precession and consists of a cyclic wobbling in the orientation of Earth’s axis of rotation. Currently, this annual motion is about 50.3 seconds of arc per year or 1 degree every 71.6 years. The process is slow, but cumulative, and takes 25,772 years for a full precession to occur. This has historically been referred to as the Precession of the Equinoxes.

The name arises from the fact that during a precession, the equinoxes could be seen moving westward along the ecliptic relative to the stars that were believed to be “fixed” in place – that is, motionless from the perspective of astronomers – and opposite to the motion of the Sun along the ecliptic.

This precession is often referred to as a Platonic Year in astrological circles because of Plato’s recorded remark in the dialogue of Timaeus that a perfect year could be defined as the return of the celestial bodies (planets) and the fixed stars to their original positions in the night sky. However, it was Hipparchus who is first credited with observing this phenomenon, according to Greek astronomer Ptolemy whose own work was in part attributed to him.

The precession of the Earth’s axis has a number of noticeable effects. First of all , the positions of the south and north celestial poles appear to move in circles against the backdrop of stars, completing one cycle every 25, 772 years. Thus, while today the star Polaris lies approximately at the north celestial pole, this will change over time, and other stars will become the “north star”. Second, the position of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun during the solstices, equinoxes, or other seasonal times slowly changes.

The cause of this was first discussed by Sir Isaac Newton in his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica where he described it as a consequence of gravitation. Though his equations were not exact, they have since been revised by scientists and his original theory proven correct.

It is now known that precessions are caused by the gravitational source of the Sun and Moon, in addition to the fact that the Earth is a spheroid and not a perfect sphere, meaning that when tilted, the Sun’s gravitational pull is stronger on the portion that is tilted towards it, thus creating a torque effect on the planet. If the Earth were a perfect sphere, there would be no precession.

Today, the term is still widely used, but generally in astrological circles and not within scientific contexts.

We have written many articles about the equinox for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the astronomical perspective of climate change, and here’s an article about the Vernal Equinox.

If you’d like more info on Earth, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on Earth. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about Gravity. Listen here, Episode 102: Gravity.


NASA: Precession