The Three-Body Problem, Longitude at Sea, and Lagrange’s Points

When Newton developed his theory of universal gravitation, the first problem he tackled was Kepler’s elliptical orbits of the planets around the sun, and he succeeded beyond compare.  The second problem he tackled was of more practical importance than the tracks of distant planets, namely the path of the Earth’s own moon, and he was never satisfied. 

Newton’s Principia and the Problem of Longitude

Measuring the precise location of the moon at very exact times against the backdrop of the celestial sphere was a method for ships at sea to find their longitude.  Yet the moon’s orbit around the Earth is irregular, and Newton recognized that because gravity was universal, every planet exerted a force on each other, and the moon was being tugged upon by the sun as well as by the Earth.

Newton’s attempt with the Moon was his last significant scientific endeavor

            In Propositions 65 and 66 of Book 1 of the Principia, Newton applied his new theory to attempt to pin down the moon’s trajectory, but was thwarted by the complexity of the three bodies of the Earth-Moon-Sun system.  For instance, the force of the sun on the moon is greater than the force of the Earth on the moon, which raised the question of why the moon continued to circle the Earth rather than being pulled away to the sun. Newton correctly recognized that it was the Earth-moon system that was in orbit around the sun, and hence the sun caused only a perturbation on the Moon’s orbit around the Earth.  However, because the Moon’s orbit is approximately elliptical, the Sun’s pull on the Moon is not constant as it swings around in its orbit, and Newton only succeeded in making estimates of the perturbation. 

            Unsatisfied with his results in the Principia, Newton tried again, beginning in the summer of 1694, but the problem was to too great even for him.  In 1702 he published his research, as far as he was able to take it, on the orbital trajectory of the Moon.  He could pin down the motion to within 10 arc minutes, but this was not accurate enough for reliable navigation, representing an uncertainty of over 10 kilometers at sea—error enough to run aground at night on unseen shoals.  Newton’s attempt with the Moon was his last significant scientific endeavor, and afterwards this great scientist withdrew into administrative activities and other occult interests that consumed his remaining time.

Race for the Moon

            The importance of the Moon for navigation was too pressing to ignore, and in the 1740’s a heated competition to be the first to pin down the Moon’s motion developed among three of the leading mathematicians of the day—Leonhard Euler, Jean Le Rond D’Alembert and Alexis Clairaut—who began attacking the lunar problem and each other [1].  Euler in 1736 had published the first textbook on dynamics that used the calculus, and Clairaut had recently returned from Lapland with Maupertuis.  D’Alembert, for his part, had placed dynamics on a firm physical foundation with his 1743 textbook.  Euler was first to publish with a lunar table in 1746, but there remained problems in his theory that frustrated his attempt at attaining the required level of accuracy.  

            At nearly the same time Clairaut and D’Alembert revisited Newton’s foiled lunar theory and found additional terms in the perturbation expansion that Newton had neglected.  They rushed to beat each other into print, but Clairaut was distracted by a prize competition for the most accurate lunar theory, announced by the Russian Academy of Sciences and refereed by Euler, while D’Alembert ignored the competition, certain that Euler would rule in favor of Clairaut.  Clairaut won the prize, but D’Alembert beat him into print. 

            The rivalry over the moon did not end there. Clairaut continued to improve lunar tables by combining theory and observation, while D’Alembert remained more purely theoretical.  A growing animosity between Clairaut and D’Alembert spilled out into the public eye and became a daily topic of conversation in the Paris salons.  The difference in their approaches matched the difference in their personalities, with the more flamboyant and pragmatic Clairaut disdaining the purist approach and philosophy of D’Alembert.  Clairaut succeeded in publishing improved lunar theory and tables in 1752, followed by Euler in 1753, while D’Alembert’s interests were drawn away towards his activities for Diderot’s Encyclopedia

            The battle over the Moon in the late 1740’s was carried out on the battlefield of perturbation theory.  To lowest order, the orbit of the Moon around the Earth is a Keplerian ellipse, and the effect of the Sun, though creating problems for the use of the Moon for navigation, produces only a small modification—a perturbation—of its overall motion.  Within a decade or two, the accuracy of perturbation theory calculations, combined with empirical observations, had improved to the point that accurate lunar tables had sufficient accuracy to allow ships to locate their longitude to within a kilometer at sea.  The most accurate tables were made by Tobias Mayer, who was awarded posthumously a prize of 3000 pounds by the British Parliament in 1763 for the determination of longitude at sea. Euler received 300 pounds for helping Mayer with his calculations.  This was the same prize that was coveted by the famous clockmaker John Harrison and depicted so brilliantly in Dava Sobel’s Longitude (1995).

Lagrange Points

            Several years later in 1772 Lagrange discovered an interesting special solution to the planar three-body problem with three massive points each executing an elliptic orbit around the center of mass of the system, but configured such that their positions always coincided with the vertices of an equilateral triangle [2].  He found a more important special solution in the restricted three-body problem that emerged when a massless third body was found to have two stable equilibrium points in the combined gravitational potentials of two massive bodies.  These two stable equilibrium points  are known as the L4 and L5 Lagrange points.  Small objects can orbit these points, and in the Sun-Jupiter system these points are occupied by the Trojan asteroids.  Similarly stable Lagrange points exist in the Earth-Moon system where space stations or satellites could be parked. 

For the special case of circular orbits of constant angular frequency w, the motion of the third mass is described by the Lagrangian

where the potential is time dependent because of the motion of the two larger masses.  Lagrange approached the problem by adopting a rotating reference frame in which the two larger masses m1 and m2 move along the stationary line defined by their centers. The Lagrangian in the rotating frame is

where the effective potential is now time independent.  The first term in the effective potential is the Coriolis effect and the second is the centrifugal term.

Fig. Effective potential for the planar three-body problem and the five Lagrange points where the gradient of the effective potential equals zero. The Lagrange points are displayed on a horizontal cross section of the potential energy shown with equipotential lines. The large circle in the center is the Sun. The smaller circle on the right is a Jupiter-like planet. The points L1, L2 and L3 are each saddle-point equilibria positions and hence unstable. The points L4 and L5 are stable points that can collect small masses that orbit these Lagrange points.

            The effective potential is shown in the figure for m3 = 10m2.  There are five locations where the gradient of the effective potential equals zero.  The point L1 is the equilibrium position between the two larger masses.  The points L2 and L3 are at positions where the centrifugal force balances the gravitational attraction to the two larger masses.  These are also the points that separate local orbits around a single mass from global orbits that orbit the two-body system. The last two Lagrange points at L4 and L5 are at one of the vertices of an equilateral triangle, with the other two vertices at the positions of the larger masses. The first three Lagrange points are saddle points.  The last two are at maxima of the effective potential.

L1, lies between Earth and the sun at about 1 million miles from Earth. L1 gets an uninterrupted view of the sun, and is currently occupied by the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and the Deep Space Climate Observatory. L2 also lies a million miles from Earth, but in the opposite direction of the sun. At this point, with the Earth, moon and sun behind it, a spacecraft can get a clear view of deep space. NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) is currently at this spot measuring the cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang. The James Webb Space Telescope will move into this region in 2021.


[1] Gutzwiller, M. C. (1998). “Moon-Earth-Sun: The oldest three-body problem.” Reviews of Modern Physics 70(2): 589-639.

[2] J.L. Lagrange Essai sur le problème des trois corps, 1772, Oeuvres tome 6

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