Invariable Plane

INVARIABLE PLANE, in celestial mechanics (see ASTRONOMY), that plane on which the sum of the moments of momentum of all the bodies which make up a system is a maximum. It derives its celebrity from the demonstration by Laplace that to whatever mutual actions all the bodies of a system may be subjected, the position of this plane remains invariable.

A conception of it may be reached in the following way. Suppose that from the centre of gravity of the solar system (instead of which we may, if we choose, take the centre of the sun), lines or radii vectores be drawn to every body of the solar system. As the planet revolves around the centre, each radius vector describes a surface of which the area swept over in a unit of time measures the areal velocity of the planet. The constancy of this velocity in the case of the sun and a single planet is formulated in Kepler's second law. Next pass any plane through the centre of motion and project the area just denned upon that plane. We shall thus have a projected areal velocity, the product of which by the mass of the planet is the moment of momentum of the latter. Form this product for every body or mass of matter in the system, and the sum of the moments is then invariable whatever be the direction of the plane of projection. In the case of a single body revolving around the Sun this plane is that of its orbit. When all the bodies of the system are taken into account, the invariable plane is a certain mean among the planes of all the orbits.

In the case of the solar system the moment of Jupiter is so preponderant that the position of the invariable plane does not deviate much from that of the orbit of Jupiter. The influence of Saturn comes next in determining it, that of all the other planets is much smaller. The latest computation of the position of this plane is by T. J. J. See, whose result for the position of the invariable plane is inclination to ecliptic i 35' 7"-74, longitude of node on ecliptic 106 8', 46"-7 (Eq. 1850).

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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