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Figure 1: Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in 1994 after breaking up under the influence of Jupiter's tidal forces during a previous pass in 1992.

The tidal force is a secondary effect of the force of gravity and is responsible for the tides. It arises because the gravitational force exerted on one body by a second body is not constant across its diameter. The side nearest to the second body experiences a greater force, while the opposite side experiences a lesser force.

In a more general usage in celestial mechanics, the expression 'tidal force' can refer to a situation in which a body or material (e.g. tidal water, or the Moon) is mainly under the gravitational influence of a second body (e.g. the Earth), but is also perturbed by the gravitational effects of a third body (e.g. by the Moon in the case of tidal water, or by the Sun in the case of the Moon). The perturbing force is sometimes in such cases called a tidal force[1] (e.g. the perturbing force on the Moon): it is the difference between the forces exerted by the third body on the first two.[2]



Figure 2: The Moon's gravity differential field at the surface of the Earth is known (along with another and weaker differential effect due to the Sun) as the Tide Generating Force. This is the primary mechanism driving tidal action, explaining two tidal equipotential bulges, and accounting for two high tides per day. In this figure, the Moon is either on the right side or on the left side of the Earth (at center). The outward direction of the arrows on the right and left indicates that where the Moon is overhead (or at the nadir) its perturbing force opposes and weakens the Earth's net attraction; and the inward direction of the arrows at top and bottom indicates that where the Moon is 90 degrees away from overhead, its perturbing effect reinforces and strengthens the Earth's net attraction.

When a body (body 1) is acted on by the gravity of another body (body 2), the field can vary significantly on body 1 between the side of the body facing body 2 and the side facing away from body 2. Figure 2 shows the differential force of gravity on a spherical body (body 1) exerted by another body (body 2). These so called tidal forces cause strains on both bodies and may distort them or even, in extreme cases, break one or the other apart.[3] The Roche limit is the distance from a planet at which tidal effects would cause an object to disintegrate because the differential force of gravity from the planet overcomes the attraction of the parts of the object for one another.[4] These strains would not occur if the gravitational field were uniform, because a uniform field only causes the entire body to accelerate together in the same direction and at the same rate.

Effects of tidal forces

Figure 3: Saturn's rings are inside the orbits of its moons. Tidal forces prevented the material in the rings from coalescing gravitationally to form moons.[5]

In the case of an elastic sphere, the effect of a tidal force is to distort the shape of the body without any change in volume. The sphere becomes an ellipsoid, with two bulges, pointing towards and away from the other body. An elliptical distortion is approximately what happens to the Earth's oceans under the action of the Moon. The Earth and Moon rotate about their common center of mass or barycenter, and their gravitational attraction provides the centripetal force necessary to maintain this motion. To an observer on the Earth, very close to this barycenter, the situation is one of the Earth as body 1 acted upon by the gravity of the Moon as body 2. All parts of the Earth are subject to the Moon's gravitational forces, causing the water in the oceans to redistribute, forming bulges on the sides near the Moon and far from the Moon.[6]

When a body rotates while subject to tidal forces, internal friction results in the gradual dissipation of its rotational kinetic energy as heat. If the body is close enough to its primary, this can result in a rotation which is tidally locked to the orbital motion, as in the case of the Earth's moon. Tidal heating produces dramatic volcanic effects on Jupiter's moon Io. Stresses caused by tidal forces also cause a regular monthly pattern of moonquakes on the moon.

Tidal forces contribute to ocean currents, which moderate global temperatures by transporting heat energy toward the poles. It has been suggested that in addition to other factors, harmonic beat variations in tidal forcing may contribute to climate changes.[7]

Tidal effects become particularly pronounced near small bodies of high mass, such as neutron stars or black holes, where they are responsible for the "spaghettification" of infalling matter. Tidal forces create the oceanic tide of Earth's oceans, where the attracting bodies are the Moon and, to a lesser extent, the Sun.

Tidal forces are also responsible for tidal locking and tidal acceleration.

Mathematical treatment

For a given (externally-generated) gravitational field, the tidal acceleration at a point with respect to a body is obtained by vectorially subtracting the gravitational acceleration at the center of the body (due to the given externally-generated field) from the gravitational acceleration (due to the same field) at the given point. Correspondingly, the term tidal force is used to describe the forces due to tidal acceleration. Note that for these purposes the only gravitational field considered is the external one; the gravitational field of the body (as shown in the graphic) is not relevant. (In other words the comparison is with the conditions at the given point as they would be if there were no externally-generated field acting unequally at the given point and at the center of the reference body. The externally-generated field is usually that produced by a perturbing third body, often the Sun or the Moon in the frequent example-cases of points on or above the Earth's surface in a geocentric reference frame.)

Figure 4: Graphic of tidal forces; the gravity field is generated by a body to the right. The top picture shows the gravitational forces; the bottom shows their residual once the field of the sphere is subtracted; this is the tidal force. See Figure 2 for a more exact version

Tidal acceleration does not require rotation or orbiting bodies; e.g. the body may be freefalling in a straight line under the influence of a gravitational field while still being influenced by (changing) tidal acceleration.

By Newton's law of universal gravitation and laws of motion, a body of mass m a distance R from the center of a sphere of mass M feels a force \vec F_g equivalent to an acceleration \vec a_g , where:

\vec F_g = - \hat r ~ G ~ \frac{M m}{R^2} . . . , and . . . \vec a_g = - \hat r ~ G ~ \frac{M}{R^2} . . . ,

where \hat r is a unit vector pointing from the body M to the body m (here, acceleration from m towards M has negative sign).

Consider now the acceleration due to the sphere of mass M experienced by a particle in the vicinity of the body of mass m. With R as the distance from the center of M to the center of m, let ∆r be the (relatively small) distance of this other particle from the center of the body of mass m. For simplicity, distances are first considered only in the direction pointing towards or away from the sphere of mass M. If the body of mass m is itself a sphere of radius ∆r, then the new particle considered may be located on its surface, at a distance (R ± ∆r) from the centre of the sphere of mass M, and ∆r may be taken as positive where the particle's distance from M is greater than R. Leaving aside whatever gravitational acceleration may be experienced by the particle towards m on account of m's own mass, we have the acceleration on the particle due to gravitational force towards M as:

\vec a_g = - \hat r ~ G ~ \frac{M}{(R \pm \Delta r)^2}

Pulling out the R2 term from the denominator gives:

\vec a_g = - \hat r ~ G ~ \frac{M}{R^2} ~ \frac{1}{(1 \pm \Delta r / R)^2}

The Maclaurin series of 1/(1 + x)2 is 1 – 2x + 3x2 – ..., which gives a series expansion of:

\vec a_g = - \hat r ~ G ~ \frac{M}{R^2} \pm \hat r ~ G ~ \frac{2 M }{R^2} ~ \frac{\Delta r}{R} \mp \cdots

The first term is the gravitational acceleration due to M at the center of the reference body m, i.e. at the point where Δr is zero. This term does not affect the observed acceleration of particles on the surface of m because with respect to M, m (and everything on its surface) is in free fall. Effectively, this first term cancels. The remaining (residual) terms represent the difference mentioned above and are tidal force (acceleration) terms. Where ∆r, is small compared to R, the first of the tidal acceleration terms is usually much more significant than the others, giving for the tidal acceleration \vec a_t(axial) for the distances ∆r considered, along the axis joining the centers of m and M:

\vec a_t(axial)  ~ \approx ~ \pm ~ \hat r ~ 2 \Delta r ~ G ~ \frac{M}{R^3}

When calculated in this way for the case where ∆r is a distance along the axis joining the centers of m and M, \vec a_t is directed outwards, relative to the center of m where ∆r is zero. Tidal accelerations can also be calculated away from the axis connecting the bodies m and M, requiring a vector calculation. In the plane perpendicular to that axis, the tidal acceleration is directed inwards (towards the center where ∆r is zero), and its magnitude is  | \vec a_t(axial) | / 2 in linear approximation as in Figure 2.

The tidal accelerations at the surface of planets in the Solar system are generally very small. For example, the lunar tidal acceleration at the Earth's surface along the Moon-Earth axis is about 1.1 × 10−7 g, while the solar tidal acceleration at the Earth's surface along the Sun-Earth axis is about 0.52 × 10−7 g, where g is the gravitational acceleration at the Earth's surface.[8]

See also


  1. ^ See e.g. "On the tidal force", I N Avsiuk, in "Soviet Astronomy Letters", vol.3 (1977), pp.96-99
  2. ^ See p.509 in "Astronomy: a physical perspective", M L Kutner (2003).
  3. ^ R Penrose (1999). The Emperor's New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds, and the Laws of Physics. Oxford University Press. p. 264. ISBN 0192861980.  
  4. ^ Thérèse Encrenaz, J -P Bibring, M Blanc (2003). The Solar System. Springer. p. 16. ISBN 3540002413.,M1.  
  5. ^ R. S. MacKay, J. D. Meiss (1987). Hamiltonian Dynamical Systems: A Reprint Selection. CRC Press. p. 36. ISBN 0852742053.  
  6. ^ Rollin A Harris (1920). The Encyclopedia Americana: A Library of Universal Knowledge (Vol. 26 ed.). Encyclopedia Americana Corp.. p. 611–617.,M1.  
  7. ^ "Millennial Climate Variability: Is There a Tidal Connection?".  
  8. ^ Modern estimates put the size of the tide-raising force (acceleration) due to the Sun at about 45% of that due to the Moon (e.g. at page 277 in Chapter 11, 'Tides and Tidal Streams', Admiralty Manual of Navigation, HMSO 1987); and the solar tidal acceleration at the Earth's surface was first given by Newton in the 'Principia', at Book 3, Proposition 36. Newton put the force to depress the sea at places 90 degrees distant from the Sun at "1 to 38604600" (in terms of g), and wrote that the force to raise the sea along the Sun-Earth axis is "twice as great", i.e. 2 to 38604600, which comes to about 0.52 × 10-7 g as expressed in the text.

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Simple English

[[File:|thumbnail|300px|Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 after breaking up under the influence of Jupiter's tidal forces.]]

Tidal force is caused by gravity and makes tides happen. This is because the gravitational field changes across the middle of a body (the diameter).

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