Physics » Uniform Circular Motion and Gravitation » Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation

Tides

Tides

Ocean tides are one very observable result of the Moon’s gravity acting on Earth. The figure below is a simplified drawing of the Moon’s position relative to the tides. Because water easily flows on Earth’s surface, a high tide is created on the side of Earth nearest to the Moon, where the Moon’s gravitational pull is strongest. Why is there also a high tide on the opposite side of Earth? The answer is that Earth is pulled toward the Moon more than the water on the far side, because Earth is closer to the Moon.

So the water on the side of Earth closest to the Moon is pulled away from Earth, and Earth is pulled away from water on the far side. As Earth rotates, the tidal bulge (an effect of the tidal forces between an orbiting natural satellite and the primary planet that it orbits) keeps its orientation with the Moon. Thus there are two tides per day (the actual tidal period is about 12 hours and 25.2 minutes), because the Moon moves in its orbit each day as well).

The Moon causes ocean tides by attracting the water on the near side more than Earth, and by attracting Earth more than the water on the far side. The distances and sizes are not to scale. For this simplified representation of the Earth-Moon system, there are two high and two low tides per day at any location, because Earth rotates under the tidal bulge.

The Sun also affects tides, although it has about half the effect of the Moon. However, the largest tides, called spring tides, occur when Earth, the Moon, and the Sun are aligned. The smallest tides, called neap tides, occur when the Sun is at a $$\text{90º}$$ angle to the Earth-Moon alignment.

(a, b) Spring tides: The highest tides occur when Earth, the Moon, and the Sun are aligned. (c) Neap tide: The lowest tides occur when the Sun lies at $$\text{90º}$$ to the Earth-Moon alignment. Note that this figure is not drawn to scale.

Tides are not unique to Earth but occur in many astronomical systems. The most extreme tides occur where the gravitational force is the strongest and varies most rapidly, such as near black holes (see the figure below). A few likely candidates for black holes have been observed in our galaxy. These have masses greater than the Sun but have diameters only a few kilometers across. The tidal forces near them are so great that they can actually tear matter from a companion star.

A black hole is an object with such strong gravity that not even light can escape it. This black hole was created by the supernova of one star in a two-star system. The tidal forces created by the black hole are so great that it tears matter from the companion star. This matter is compressed and heated as it is sucked into the black hole, creating light and X-rays observable from Earth.