Take the 2-minute tour ×
Physics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for active researchers, academics and students of physics. It's 100% free, no registration required.

Why only big rocks (planets) have satellites and not small ones? Why cosmic dust doesn't orbit rocks that are many times heavier than the dust grains? If dust is still too heavy then what about molecules, atoms, or any particle for that matter? The mass difference should be millions of millions times, isn't it enough for orbiting? Moon is 1% of Earth mass, yet we don't see 1kg rocks orbiting 100kg ones.

share|improve this question
add comment

3 Answers 3

I want to expand a bit on David Zaslavsky's point #1: "A random dust grain probably won't be going at the right velocity to be captured into orbit around a bigger rock (like an asteroid)." Without the assistance of a third body, it's actually impossible for an object to be gravitationally "captured" in an orbit by another: if it wasn't already in orbit before, there's no way for it to start orbiting.

The reason is just conservation of energy. If the object wasn't already in an orbit, then it was moving too fast, given its distance, to be in an orbit. (To put it the other way around, it was too far away, given its speed.) Even if the little guy was moving in just the right direction to come close to the big guy, it won't be captured: it will move in on a hyperbolic path, approach the other object once, and then fly away again, simply because it has too much energy to be captured. The only way to produce an orbit is for a third body to interact with the system and siphon off some energy at the right time.

That can happen, but unless the density of things flying around is high, it's rare. And if the density is high, then subsequent collisions, which will disrupt the orbit, will also be common.

share|improve this answer
+1 good to point this out... I glossed over it in the interest of simplicity. –  David Z May 6 '11 at 19:53
add comment
An intriguing picture of small solar systems comes to mind.

Nevertheless, Luboš is correct that for any recognizable system the velocities of capture would be so low as to make the question moot.

As a rough example , equating centripetal gravitational with centrifugal forces, a particle orbiting a 100 kg mass 100 meters away from it would need a velocity order of magnitude of ten microns per second, something that would hardly be observable: the orbit of 628 meters would take 1.7*10^4 hours to complete.

In any case, in real life in our space around the sun it is a many body problem, as David suggests above, so statistical and chaotic behaviours will enter the problem and destroy any small scale regularity. Only in deep outer space outside the sun's field such an orbit might be undisturbed and observed by a patient observer :).

The reason for such small velocities is the weakness of the gravitational constant G. The velocity of a stable orbit is proportional to the square root of G. The mass of the orbiting particle does not matter as it is eliminated in equating centripetal and centrifugal forces.

share|improve this answer
add comment

The mass difference has practically nothing to do with whether two things can orbit each other. You can have two objects of the same mass in orbit (e.g. binary star systems), or you can have two objects of wildly different masses in orbit (the Earth and a piece of space junk), or anything in between. There are a lot of factors involved, for example:

  1. A random dust grain probably won't be going at the right velocity to be captured into orbit around a bigger rock (like an asteroid).

  2. When dust grains do orbit asteroids, there will probably be a lot of them, so they're going to collide with each other and lose energy, so they fall out of orbit rather quickly.

  3. Planets tend to be pretty isolated, so things can orbit them without getting disturbed by other planets. In contrast, smaller rocks like asteroids are often found in large groups, so a dust grain couldn't orbit just one - it would also be affected significantly by the gravity of other asteroids in the vicinity.

share|improve this answer
OK, David, I disagree that you have captured the main point. The OP was asking about small bodies orbiting 100-kilogram bodies. You know that this is impossible and has nothing to do with the 3 details you wrote. The gravitational acceleration coming from 100-kilogram objects is so tiny that the orbital speed would have to be essentially zero for a reasonable radius comparable to 1 AU or similar solar-system-like distances, or smaller. 100 kilograms is $10^{22}$ times lighter than the Earth, so the required orbital velocities for the same $r$ are $10^{11}$ times lower. –  Luboš Motl May 6 '11 at 7:03
The gravitational influence of a 100 kg body 1 AU from the Sun, its Hill Sphere, is about 40 meters; not trivial. However, as Luboš pointed out, a dust particle would need a near-zero relative velocity to orbit it. –  Michael Luciuk May 6 '11 at 11:41
Not only is the sphere of influense very small, and the orbital velocities very small, but the perturbation needed to knock it out of orbit is also very small. Small bodies are affected by solar radiation pressure (and the radiation pressure of reradiated heat), and these tend to push them around. That means the stability of tiny objects orbitting other tiny objects is poor. –  Omega Centauri May 6 '11 at 16:17
@Lubos: no, it's not impossible for something like a 1 kg mass and a 100 kg mass to be in orbit. As you said, it would just require an unreasonably low velocity, which is exactly what point #1 is about. –  David Z May 6 '11 at 19:52
add comment

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.