Skip to main content Skip to Search Box

Definition: celestial mechanics from The Penguin Dictionary of Science

The study of the motion of stars and other celestial bodies.


Summary Article: celestial mechanics
from The Columbia Encyclopedia

the study of the motions of astronomical bodies as they move under the influence of their mutual gravitation. Celestial mechanics analyzes the orbital motions of planets, dwarf planets, comets, asteroids, and natural and artificial satellites within the solar system as well as the motions of stars and galaxies. Newton's laws of motion and his theory of universal gravitation are the basis for celestial mechanics; for some objects, general relativity is also important. Calculating the motions of astronomical bodies is a complicated procedure because many separate forces are acting at once, and all the bodies are simultaneously in motion. The only problem that can be solved exactly is that of two bodies moving under the influence of their mutual gravitational attraction (see ephemeris). Since the sun is the dominant influence in the solar system, an application of the two-body problem leads to the simple elliptical orbits as described by Kepler's laws; these laws give a close approximation of planetary motion. More exact solutions, which consider the effects of the planets on each other, cannot be found in a straightforward way. However, methods accounting for these other influences, or perturbations, have been devised; they allow successive refinements of an approximate solution to be made to almost any degree of precision. In computing the motions of stars and the rotations of galaxies, statistical methods are often used. Columbia astronomer Wallace Eckert was the first to use a computer for orbit calculations; now computers are used for this work almost exclusively.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2017

Related Articles


Full text Article celestial mechanics
Astronomy Encyclopedia

(dynamical astronomy) Discipline concerned with using the laws of physics to explain and predict the orbits of the planets, satellites and...

Full text Article celestial mechanics
Philip's Encyclopedia

Branch of astronomy concerned with the relative motions of stars and planets that are associated in systems (such as the Solar System or a...

Full text Article celestial mechanics
The Macmillan Encyclopedia

The study of the motions of celestial bodies subject to mutual gravitational interaction through the application of the laws of gravitation ...

See more from Credo