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Perihelion precession of planets
The solar system consists of eight major planets (Mercury to Neptune) moving around the Sun in slightly elliptical orbits that are approximately
coplanar with one another. According to Chapter 4, if we neglect the relatively weak interplanetary
gravitational interactions, the perihelia of the various planets (i.e., the points on their orbits at which they are closest to the Sun) remain fixed in space. However, once these
interactions are taken into account, it turns out that the planetary perihelia all
slowly precess in a prograde manner (i.e., rotate in the same direction as the orbital motion) around the Sun.^{5.1} We can calculate the approximate rate of perihelion precession
of a given planet by treating the other planets as uniform concentric rings, centered on the Sun, of mass equal to the planetary mass, and
radius equal to the mean orbital radius. This method of calculation, which is due to Gauss, is equivalent to averaging the interplanetary gravitational interactions
over the orbits of the other planets. It is reasonable to do this because the timescale associated with the perihelion precession is
very much longer than the orbital period of any planet in the solar system. Thus, by treating the other planets as
rings, we can calculate the mean gravitational perturbation due to these planets, and, thereby, determine the
desired precession rate. (Actually, Gauss also incorporated the eccentricities, and nonuniform angular velocities, of
the planetary orbits into his original calculation.)
We can conveniently index the planets in the solar system by designating Mercury as planet 1, and Neptune as planet 8. Let the
and the
, for
, be the planetary masses and mean orbital radii, respectively. Furthermore, let
be the mass of the Sun.
It follows, from Section 3.7, that the gravitational potential generated in the vicinity of the
th planet by the Sun and
the other planets is

(5.21) 
where
. Here,
is a Legendre polynomial (Abramowitz and Stegun 1965b).
The radial force per unit mass acting on the
th planet is written
. Hence, it is easily demonstrated that

(5.22) 
to first order in the ratio of the planetary masses to the solar mass.
Thus, according to Equation (5.19), the apsidal angle for the
th planet is

(5.23) 
Hence, the perihelion of the
th planet advances by

(5.24) 
radians per revolution around the Sun. Of course, the time required for a single revolution is the orbital period,
. Thus, the rate of perihelion precession, in arc seconds per year, is given by

(5.25) 
12pt
Table:
Observed and theoretical planetary perihelion precession rates (at J2000). Source: Standish and Williams (1992).



Planet 





Mercury 


Venus 


Earth 


Mars 


Jupiter 


Saturn 


Uranus 


Neptune 



Figure:
Observed (full circles) and theoretical (empty circles) planetary perihelion precession rates (at J2000). Source (for observational data): Standish and Williams (1992).

Table 5.1 and Figure 5.1 compare the observed perihelion precession rates of the planets
with the theoretical rates calculated from Equation (5.25)
and the planetary data given in Table 4.1. It can be seen that there is excellent agreement
between the two, except for the planet Venus. The main reason for this is that Venus
has an unusually low eccentricity (
), which renders its perihelion point extremely sensitive to small perturbations.
Next: Perihelion precession of Mercury
Up: Orbits in central force
Previous: Motion in nearly circular
Richard Fitzpatrick
20160331