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Week 1 challenge problem (optional)

September 2, 2013

In this problem we will explore how modifying the gravitational force law changes orbits. In
order to do this problem, you will need to understand how elliptic orbits result from Newtons
gravitational force F = GmM/r2 .
Imagine that the gravitational potential was modified from U (r) = k/r to
U (r) = k

er/a
r

where k = GmM and a is a constant with units of length. Bounded orbits, i.e. circular and elliptic
orbits, occur for large enough athe easiest way to see this is to take a and we recover
Newtons law.
(a) In our world (a = U = k/r), the closest and furthest points that the Earth gets to the
Sun are rclose = 1.4 1011 m and rfar = 1.6 1011 m.1 Now consider the modified potential
with a large compared to rfar and rclose , say a = 1.5 1015 m. If the Earth has the same
energy and angular momentum, what are the closest and furthest points of its orbit? Give
your answer to four significant figures.
(b) Newtons law emits elliptic orbits. If the Sun is taken to be at the origin, the radius r of an
orbit as a function of the angle from the Sun is given by
r=

b
,
1 + e cos()

where e is known as the eccentricity of the orbit and b is a constant with units of length. For
elliptic orbits 0 < e < 1. For the modified potential, if a is large enough, the orbits are very
nearly elliptical2 and a similar formula holds with only the eccentricity modified:
r=

b
1+

e cos()

What are the eccentricities e and e of the orbits for the two cases considered in the previous
part? Give your answer to three significant figures.
(c) For large a (a b), what is the approximate difference e e e in terms of a, b, and e? In
other words, Taylor expand e to first order in b/a. How well does this formula work for the
numerical values you calculated in the previous part?
1

Ive exaggerated the numbers a bit; the actual values are rclose = 1.47 1011 m and rfar = 1.52 1011 m
it turns out that the elliptic orbit precesses a little bit, which means that changes a little for each revolution
around the Sun. For a rfar this is a small effect we can ignore.
2

Comment: The modified potential in this problem is actually not so crazy. A potential of the
form er/a /r is called a Yukawa potential and it describes the force between two particles when the
particle mediating the force is massive. So if the photon had a mass, the Coulomb potential would
not be 1/r, but instead er/a /r. Similar to how the photon mediates the electromagnetic force
between two charged particles, a graviton is the particle that communicates the gravitational
force between two masses. Because the gravitational force is so weakyou can pick up a coffee
mug while the whole Earth pulls on itwe have never seen individual gravitons as we have seen
individual photons. While it appears that gravity is long ranged and mediated by a massless
graviton, U (r) 1/r, it is not impossible for the graviton to have a very light mass. A light mass
corresponds to a large in the Yukawa potential, and as you have explored in this problem, would
lead to small deviations from a massless graviton. Since we do not observe these deviations, they
bound the graviton mass to be smaller than a given value (equivalently bound a to be larger than
a given value). In the next lecture you will be introduced to the weak force, which is mediated by
massive particles and so will have a Yukawa potential describing the force between two particles
carrying weak charge.