Precession of apsides

In general relativity, the apsides of any orbit (the point of the orbiting body's closest approach to the system's center of mass) will precess—the orbit is not an ellipse, but akin to an ellipse that rotates on its focus, resulting in a rose curve-like shape (see image). Einstein first derived this result by using an approximate metric representing the Newtonian limit and treating the orbiting body as a test particle. For him, the fact that his theory gave a straightforward explanation of the anomalous perihelion shift of the planet Mercury, discovered earlier by Urbain Le Verrier in 1859, was important evidence that he had at last identified the correct form of the gravitational field equations.

The effect can also be derived by using either the exact Schwarzschild metric (describing spacetime around a spherical mass) or the much more general post-Newtonian formalism. It is due to the influence of gravity on the geometry of space and to the contribution of self-energy to a body's gravity (encoded in the nonlinearity of Einstein's equations). Relativistic precession has been observed for all planets that allow for accurate precession measurements (Mercury, Venus and the Earth), as well as in binary pulsar systems, where it is larger by five orders of magnitude.

In general relativity, the apsides of any orbit (the point of the orbiting body's closest approach to the system's center of mass) will precess—the orbit is not an ellipse, but akin to an ellipse that rotates on its focus, resulting in a rose curve-like shape (see image). Einstein first derived this result by using an approximate metric representing the Newtonian limit and treating the orbiting body as a test particle. For him, the fact that his theory gave a straightforward explanation of the anomalous perihelion shift of the planet Mercury, discovered earlier by Urbain Le Verrier in 1859, was important evidence that he had at last identified the correct form of the gravitational field equations.

The effect can also be derived by using either the exact Schwarzschild metric (describing spacetime around a spherical mass) or the much more general post-Newtonian formalism. It is due to the influence of gravity on the geometry of space and to the contribution of self-energy to a body's gravity (encoded in the nonlinearity of Einstein's equations). Relativistic precession has been observed for all planets that allow for accurate precession measurements (Mercury, Venus and the Earth), as well as in binary pulsar systems, where it is larger by five orders of magnitude.

A representation of the geodetic effect.

Geodetic precession and frame-dragging

Several relativistic effects are directly related to the relativity of direction. One is geodetic precession: the axis direction of a gyroscope in free fall in curved spacetime will change when compared, for instance, with the direction of light received from distant stars—even though such a gyroscope represents the way of keeping a direction as stable as possible ("parallel transport"). For the Moon-Earth-system, this effect has been measured with the help of lunar laser ranging. More recently, it has been measured for test masses aboard the satellite Gravity Probe B to a precision of better than 1 percent.

Near a rotating mass, there are so-called gravitomagnetic or frame-dragging effects. A distant observer will determine that objects close to the mass get "dragged around". This is most extreme for rotating black holes where, for any object entering a zone known as the ergosphere, rotation is inevitable. Such effects can again be tested through their influence on the orientation of gyroscopes in free fall. Somewhat controversial tests have been performed using the LAGEOS satellites, confirming the relativistic prediction. A precision measurement is the main aim of the Gravity Probe B mission, with the results expected in September 2008.

Several relativistic effects are directly related to the relativity of direction. One is geodetic precession: the axis direction of a gyroscope in free fall in curved spacetime will change when compared, for instance, with the direction of light received from distant stars—even though such a gyroscope represents the way of keeping a direction as stable as possible ("parallel transport"). For the Moon-Earth-system, this effect has been measured with the help of lunar laser ranging. More recently, it has been measured for test masses aboard the satellite Gravity Probe B to a precision of better than 1 percent.

Near a rotating mass, there are so-called gravitomagnetic or frame-dragging effects. A distant observer will determine that objects close to the mass get "dragged around". This is most extreme for rotating black holes where, for any object entering a zone known as the ergosphere, rotation is inevitable. Such effects can again be tested through their influence on the orientation of gyroscopes in free fall. Somewhat controversial tests have been performed using the LAGEOS satellites, confirming the relativistic prediction. A precision measurement is the main aim of the Gravity Probe B mission, with the results expected in September 2008.

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