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The Precession of the Earth’s Axis In this document I will elucidate why the Earth’s rotation axis precesses, and also show how complex physical phenomena can often be estimated without titanic amounts of computation.

The Facts The daily rotational axis of the Earth is tipped at 23.5° relative to the rotation axis of its yearly orbit around the Sun. Offhand, one might imagine that something with the angular momentum of a planet would have its rotation axis permanently pointed at one place in the sky, but that is not so. The Earth’s rotation axis precesses (traces out a conical path) once every 25,770 years. For historic reasons, this is known as the Precession of the Equinoxes. The existence of the precession has been known for a very long time, but it was not explained until Isaac Newton applied his laws of motion to the Earth in the 1680’s. In short, Newton realized that gravitational forces acting between the Earth and the Sun and Moon could bring about the precession even though the Earth is in free-fall around the Sun and therefore cannot possibly be precessing in the same way that a toy top does. A toy top must have a fixed rotation axis that does not go through its center of mass, so that gravity can pull on the CM and create a torque relative to the fixed axis. The Earth, as a freely moving object, is nothing like this and therefore is not like a toy top.

We Need An Unbalanced Force The first problem we have is that we need an unbalanced force to be acting on the Earth. Without an unbalanced force there can be no unbalanced torque, hence no precession. Fortunately, Newton’s law of gravitation provides such an imbalance: for two spherical objects such as the Earth and Moon, it says the force between them is F = G Mm / r 2 , where M is the mass of the Earth, m is the mass of the Moon, r is the distance between the CMs of the Earth and Moon, and G is the gravitational constant, 6.674 x 10 11 N m 2 / kg 2 . (If you have not seen this formula before, never mind. Everything you need to know about it, for the purposes of this essay, I have just told you.) Since gravity varies as r 2 , the gravitational force (from the Moon) acting on the side of the Earth facing the Moon must be slightly greater than that on the side facing away from the Moon. The radius of the Earth is small compared to the radius of the Moon’s orbit, so we can compute the force difference F across the Earth’s width r to excellent accuracy by just taking the derivative: F = 2GMm r / r 3 . (I’ve tossed the negative sign because I don’t care if the Earth is precessing clockwise or counter-clockwise.)

This is a good place to stop and ask how much influence the Sun has on the Earth’s precession, as compared to the Moon. We see that F = (2GM r)(m/r 3 ), so if we divide (m/r 3 ) for the Moon by the equivalent (m/r 3 ) for the Sun, we can get a ratio for the two. The relevant numbers are:

M Moon = 7.349 x 10 22 kg d Moon = 3.844 x 10 8 m

M Sun = 1.989 x 10 30 kg d Sun = 1.496 x 10 11 m

Punching these into a calculator gives Ratio(Sun/Moon) = 0.46, so we can adjust F by multiplying it

by 1.46 to include the gravity of the Sun: F = (1.46)(2GM r)(m/r 3 ).

We Need An Unbalanced Torque Putting an unbalanced force across the Earth would not help us if the Earth was a perfect sphere. We need a net torque to precess the Earth’s axis, so somehow the Sun and Moon’s gravity must place an asymmetric force on the Earth, not merely an attractive one.

Fortunately, the Earth is not a perfect sphere. The centrifugal force of its own rotation causes it bulge out slightly at the equator. The latest NASA data places the polar radius of the Earth at 6357 km, and the equatorial radius at 6378 km. We are therefore justified in modeling the Earth as a perfect sphere of radius 6357 km plus an additional band of mass 21 km thick running around its equator. The figure at right shows the idea. The spherical part of the Earth generates zero torque, because it is symmetric. The belt generates a torque because there is a net force F acting on it, and even better, since the belt is tilted at 23.5° relative to the Moon’s pull, that force is not aligned with the Earth’s CM. A torque must result. It is clear from the figure that ττττ = r x F will be directed out of the page – in other words, it will be perpendicular to the rotation (angular momentum) axis of the Earth. We have precession!

Ifs, Ands, Buts But, one might ask, how well does this lovely little picture translate to the real Universe? For example, the Moon and the Sun are moving, not fixed at one point. For another, F is drawn as if it is pulling at just one point on the Earth, and that is surely over-simplified.

Good questions. The figure shows the situation when the Sun/Moon are to the far right and exerting their maximum torque on the Earth. If you rotate them out of the page by one-quarter of an orbit, then they will have the same view of Earth that you do as you look at the page. From this angle, they cannot exert a torque on the bulge: both sides of it are the same distance from them. If they rotate another quarter-orbit to the left-hand side of the Earth, then their gravity will tend to pull the left-hand side of the bulge down, which is the same rotational direction as pulling the right-hand side up. (Nice the way that works out.) Then they rotate behind the page and once again exert zero torque from that angle. Repeat for 4.5 billion years.

So, the torque exerted by the Moon varies in a regular rhythm, going from maximum to basically zero and back again every two weeks. However, the precession of the Earth is so slow that the Moon has to run through approximately 620,000 maximum-to-minimum cycles for each precession. If you could make the Earth’s precession one day long, then the Moon would be nothing more than a semi-invisible blur, blasting across the sky about four times per second. For such a blur, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that the Moon’s motion just averages out the torque to about ½ of its maximum.

As for the F pulling on the bulge, yes, the picture is just a picture. It is intended for educational purposes only. The F which we computed by taking the derivative of the gravity law just gives us the

total force difference between the front and back of the Earth. This will only correspond to the force acting on the bulge if the bulge is concentrated into two point masses, one in front (where the arrow is in the illustration) and one in back. In fact the Moon’s gravity must operate on the entire equatorial bulge, which is at a varying distance. If we really wanted to waste a huge amount of time, we could set up an elaborate calculation and perform an vector integral of the Moon’s (inverse-square varying) gravitational force along all points of an ellipsoidal hoop. Or, we could guess that spreading the mass between the maximum torque and zero will probably end up cutting the torque in half, on average, and leave it at that. All things considered, I like guessing the average is ½.

So, including the above two estimates/guesses, our adjusted formula for F now reads:

F = (½)(½)(1.46)(2GM r)(m/r 3 ).

Numbers, Numbers We still have some work to do. Item One: what is the mass of that belt, exactly? The F which we have derived includes the mass of the entire Earth, and that is irrelevant here. Most of the mass of the Earth is not participating in the production of the torque.

Let us make an estimate of the belt mass that is consistent with our previous assumptions. We took the Earth to be a sphere of 6357 km radius, which does not participate in the torque, plus a belt that does. With the belt, the Earth is an oblate spheroid with a = 6378 km (equatorial) and b = 6357 km (polar), and the volume of a spheroid is V = 4 / 3 π a 2 b. We can assume that the oblate spheroid represents the entire Earth, whereas the 6357 km sphere represents all of Earth that isn’t in the belt. To calculate the fraction f of Earth that is in the belt, we write: f = ( 4 / 3 π a 2 b – 4 / 3 πb 3 ) / ( 4 / 3 π a 2 b) = (a 2 b – b 3 ) / (a 2 b) = 1 – (b/a) 2 = 1 – (6357/6378) 2 = 0.00657.

This estimate isn’t bad, but one thing about it isn’t quite right. It assumes that the mass of the Earth is uniformly distributed, and that is not so. The Earth is significantly more dense near its center. The average density of the Earth is 5.5 g/cm 3 , whereas the average density of the rock near its surface is only 3.8 g/cm 3 . Since the equatorial bulge is entirely at Earth’s surface, I will tweak our estimate by 3.8 / 5.5, or f = (0.691)(0.00657) = 0.0045. We now have F = (0.0045)(½)(½)(1.46)(2GM r)(m/r 3 )

= (0.0045)(1.46)(GM r)(m/2r 3 ). By one of those utterly stupefying coincidences that make people believe in flying saucers, (0.0045)(1.46) = 0.00657! In other words, if I had neglected this tweak about the Earth’s density, and neglected to include the 1.46 factor for the Sun’s gravity, then the unadjusted fraction of f = 0.00657 would have left us right where we are now! F = (0.00657)(GMm r / 2r 3 ).

Moving on, we see from the figure that r should be taken as the distance across the equatorial bulge, or r = 2R cos(23.5°), where R is the radius of the Earth. We insert r into F, then compute the torque on the bulge: τ = r x F = R F sin(23.5°) = R(0.00657)[2GMmR cos(23.5°)] sin(23.5°) / 2r 3 = (0.00657)GMmR 2 sin(47°) / 2r 3 , where I have used sin(2θ) = 2 cosθ sinθ.

The precession speed of an angular momentum vector is dφ/dt = τ / L = τ / Iω. We already have τ, and ω = 2π / day = 2π/(24)(3600) rad/s. It is tempting to assume that I for the Earth is 2 / 5 MR 2 , but it isn’t. As mentioned above, the Earth is not a uniform sphere. The actual I for the Earth is almost exactly 1 / 3 MR 2 . (Trust me. Another reason to believe in flying saucers.) We then have:

dφ/dt = (0.00657)GMmR 2 sin(47°)(24)(3600)/[ 1 / 3 MR 2 (2π)2r 3 ] = 3(0.00657)Gm sin(47°)(24)(900)/πr 3

= (99.1)Gm/r 3 = (99.1)(6.674 x 10 11 )(7.349 x 10 22 kg)/(3.844 x 10 8 m) 3 = 8.56 x 10 12 rad/s. This corresponds to a time of 2π / 8.56 x 10 12 rad/s = 7.34 x 10 11 s to make one revolution, or

T = (7.34 x 10 11 s) / (3600)(24)(365) = 23,300 years. The actual time is 25,770 years, so it would seem

that the various estimates we made as we went along were pretty good ones.