Gravitational energy

Last updated
Image depicting Earth's gravitational field. Objects accelerate towards the Earth, thus losing their gravitational energy and transforming it into kinetic energy. Gravitational field Earth lines equipotentials.svg
Image depicting Earth's gravitational field. Objects accelerate towards the Earth, thus losing their gravitational energy and transforming it into kinetic energy.

Gravitational energy is the potential energy a physical object with mass has in relation to another massive object due to gravity. It is potential energy associated with the gravitational field. Gravitational energy is dependent on the masses of two bodies, their distance apart and the gravitational constant (G). [1]

Potential energy form of energy

In physics, potential energy is the energy held by an object because of its position relative to other objects, stresses within itself, its electric charge, or other factors.

In common usage, a physical object or physical body is a collection of matter within a defined contiguous boundary in 3-dimensional space. The boundary must be defined and identified by the properties of the material. The boundary may change over time. The boundary is usually the visible or tangible surface of the object. The matter in the object is constrained to move as one object. The boundary may move in space relative to other objects that it is not attached to. An object's boundary may also deform and change over time in other ways.

Mass Quantity of matter

Mass is both a property of a physical body and a measure of its resistance to acceleration when a net force is applied. An object's mass also determines the strength of its gravitational attraction to other bodies.


In everyday cases (i.e. close to the Earth's surface), the gravitational field is considered to be constant. For such scenarios the Newtonian formula for potential energy can be reduced to:

where is the gravitational potential energy, is the mass, is the gravitational field, and is the height. [1] This formula treats the potential energy as a positive quantity.

Newtonian mechanics

In classical mechanics, two or more masses always have a gravitational potential. Conservation of energy requires that this gravitational field energy is always negative. [2] The gravitational potential energy is the potential energy an object has because it is within a gravitational field.

Classical mechanics sub-field of mechanics, which is concerned with the set of physical laws describing the motion of bodies under the action of a system of forces

Classical mechanics describes the motion of macroscopic objects, from projectiles to parts of machinery, and astronomical objects, such as spacecraft, planets, stars and galaxies.

In physics and chemistry, the law of conservation of energy states that the total energy of an isolated system remains constant; it is said to be conserved over time. This law means that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it can only be transformed or transferred from one form to another. For instance, chemical energy is converted to kinetic energy when a stick of dynamite explodes. If one adds up all the forms of energy that were released in the explosion, such as the kinetic energy and potential energy of the pieces, as well as heat and sound, one will get the exact decrease of chemical energy in the combustion of the dynamite. Classically, conservation of energy was distinct from conservation of mass; however, special relativity showed that mass is related to energy and vice versa by E = mc2, and science now takes the view that mass–energy is conserved.

Negative energy is a concept used in physics to explain the nature of certain fields, including the gravitational field and various quantum field effects.

The force one point mass exerts onto another point mass is given by Newton's law of gravitation:

Newton's law of universal gravitation states that every particle attracts every other particle in the universe with a force which is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centers. This is a general physical law derived from empirical observations by what Isaac Newton called inductive reasoning. It is a part of classical mechanics and was formulated in Newton's work Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, first published on 5 July 1687. When Newton presented Book 1 of the unpublished text in April 1686 to the Royal Society, Robert Hooke made a claim that Newton had obtained the inverse square law from him.

To get the total work done by an external force to bring point mass from infinity to the final distance (for example the radius of Earth) of the two mass points, the force is integrated with respect to displacement:

Because , the total work done on the object can be written as: [3]

Gravitational Potential Energy

General relativity

A depiction of curved geodesics ("world lines"). According to general relativity, mass distorts spacetime and gravity is a natural consequence of Newton's First Law. Spacetime lattice analogy.svg
A depiction of curved geodesics ("world lines"). According to general relativity, mass distorts spacetime and gravity is a natural consequence of Newton's First Law.

In general relativity gravitational energy is extremely complex, and there is no single agreed upon definition of the concept. It is sometimes modeled via the Landau–Lifshitz pseudotensor [4] that allows retention for the energy-momentum conservation laws of classical mechanics. Addition of the matter stress–energy–momentum tensor to the Landau–Lifshitz pseudotensor results in a combined matter plus gravitational energy pseudotensor that has a vanishing 4-divergence in all frames - ensuring the conservation law. Some people object to this derivation on the grounds that pseudotensors are inappropriate in general relativity, but the divergence of the combined matter plus gravitational energy pseudotensor is a tensor.

General relativity Theory by Albert Einstein, covering gravitation in curved spacetime

General relativity is the geometric theory of gravitation published by Albert Einstein in 1915 and the current description of gravitation in modern physics. General relativity generalizes special relativity and supersedes Newton's law of universal gravitation, providing a unified description of gravity as a geometric property of space and time, or spacetime. In particular, the curvature of spacetime is directly related to the energy and momentum of whatever matter and radiation are present. The relation is specified by the Einstein field equations, a system of partial differential equations.

Four-vector Vector in special relativity well-behaved with respect to Lorentz transformations

In special relativity, a four-vector is an object with four components, which transform in a specific way under Lorentz transformation. Specifically, a four-vector is an element of a four-dimensional vector space considered as a representation space of the standard representation of the Lorentz group, the (½,½) representation. It differs from a Euclidean vector in how its magnitude is determined. The transformations that preserve this magnitude are the Lorentz transformations, which include spatial rotations and boosts.

Divergence vector differential operator measuring the source or sink at a given point

In vector calculus, divergence is a vector operator that produces a scalar field, giving the quantity of a vector field's source at each point. More technically, the divergence represents the volume density of the outward flux of a vector field from an infinitesimal volume around a given point.

See also

Related Research Articles

Stress–energy tensor Tensor describing the density and flux of energy in spacetime

The stress–energy tensor, sometimes stress–energy–momentum tensor or energy–momentum tensor, is a tensor quantity in physics that describes the density and flux of energy and momentum in spacetime, generalizing the stress tensor of Newtonian physics. It is an attribute of matter, radiation, and non-gravitational force fields. The stress–energy tensor is the source of the gravitational field in the Einstein field equations of general relativity, just as mass density is the source of such a field in Newtonian gravity.

In physics, a gravitational field is a model used to explain the influence that a massive body extends into the space around itself, producing a force on another massive body. Thus, a gravitational field is used to explain gravitational phenomena, and is measured in newtons per kilogram (N/kg). In its original concept, gravity was a force between point masses. Following Isaac Newton, Pierre-Simon Laplace attempted to model gravity as some kind of radiation field or fluid, and since the 19th century explanations for gravity have usually been taught in terms of a field model, rather than a point attraction.

In theoretical physics, negative mass is matter whose mass is of opposite sign to the mass of normal matter, e.g. −1 kg. Such matter would violate one or more energy conditions and show some strange properties, stemming from the ambiguity as to whether attraction should refer to force or the oppositely oriented acceleration for negative mass. It is used in certain speculative hypotheses, such as on the construction of traversable wormholes and the Alcubierre drive. Initially, the closest known real representative of such exotic matter is a region of negative pressure density produced by the Casimir effect.

Gravitational potential

In classical mechanics, the gravitational potential at a location is equal to the work per unit mass that would be needed to move the object from a fixed reference location to the location of the object. It is analogous to the electric potential with mass playing the role of charge. The reference location, where the potential is zero, is by convention infinitely far away from any mass, resulting in a negative potential at any finite distance.

In theoretical physics, the Einstein–Cartan theory, also known as the Einstein–Cartan–Sciama–Kibble theory, is a classical theory of gravitation similar to general relativity. The theory was first proposed by Élie Cartan in 1922 and expounded in the following few years.

In theoretical physics, the Brans–Dicke theory of gravitation is a theoretical framework to explain gravitation. It is a competitor of Einstein's theory of general relativity. It is an example of a scalar–tensor theory, a gravitational theory in which the gravitational interaction is mediated by a scalar field as well as the tensor field of general relativity. The gravitational constant G is not presumed to be constant but instead 1/G is replaced by a scalar field which can vary from place to place and with time.

The Abraham–Minkowski controversy is a physics debate concerning electromagnetic momentum within dielectric media. Traditionally, it is argued that in the presence of matter the electromagnetic stress-energy tensor by itself is not conserved (divergenceless). Only the total stress-energy tensor carries unambiguous physical significance, and how one apportions it between an "electromagnetic" part and a "matter" part depends on context and convenience. In other words, the electromagnetic part and the matter part in the total momentum can be arbitrarily distributed as long as the total momentum is kept the same. There are two incompatible equations to describe momentum transfer between matter and electromagnetic fields. These two equations were first suggested by Hermann Minkowski (1908) and Max Abraham (1909), from which the controversy's name derives. Both were claimed to be supported by experimental data. Theoretically, it is usually argued that Abraham's version of momentum "does indeed represent the true momentum density of electromagnetic fields" for electromagnetic waves, while Minkowski's version of momentum is "pseudomomentum" or "wave momentum".

A classical field theory is a physical theory that predicts how one or more physical fields interact with matter through field equations. The term 'classical field theory' is commonly reserved for describing those physical theories that describe electromagnetism and gravitation, two of the fundamental forces of nature. Theories that incorporate quantum mechanics are called quantum field theories.

In physics and mathematics, a pseudotensor is usually a quantity that transforms like a tensor under an orientation-preserving coordinate transformation, e.g. a proper rotation, but additionally changes sign under an orientation reversing coordinate transformation, e.g., an improper rotation, that is a transformation expressed as a proper rotation followed by reflection. This is a generalization of a pseudovector.

In physics, relativistic mechanics refers to mechanics compatible with special relativity (SR) and general relativity (GR). It provides a non-quantum mechanical description of a system of particles, or of a fluid, in cases where the velocities of moving objects are comparable to the speed of light c. As a result, classical mechanics is extended correctly to particles traveling at high velocities and energies, and provides a consistent inclusion of electromagnetism with the mechanics of particles. This was not possible in Galilean relativity, where it would be permitted for particles and light to travel at any speed, including faster than light. The foundations of relativistic mechanics are the postulates of special relativity and general relativity. The unification of SR with quantum mechanics is relativistic quantum mechanics, while attempts for that of GR is quantum gravity, an unsolved problem in physics.

In theoretical physics, Nordström's theory of gravitation was a predecessor of general relativity. Strictly speaking, there were actually two distinct theories proposed by the Finnish theoretical physicist Gunnar Nordström, in 1912 and 1913 respectively. The first was quickly dismissed, but the second became the first known example of a metric theory of gravitation, in which the effects of gravitation are treated entirely in terms of the geometry of a curved spacetime.

In relativistic classical field theories of gravitation, particularly general relativity, an energy condition is one of various alternative conditions which can be applied to the matter content of the theory, when it is either not possible or desirable to specify this content explicitly. The hope is then that any reasonable matter theory will satisfy this condition or at least will preserve the condition if it is satisfied by the starting conditions.

In general relativity, the Raychaudhuri equation, or Landau–Raychaudhuri equation, is a fundamental result describing the motion of nearby bits of matter.

Scalar theories of gravitation are field theories of gravitation in which the gravitational field is described using a scalar field, which is required to satisfy some field equation.

Scalar–tensor–vector gravity (STVG) is a modified theory of gravity developed by John Moffat, a researcher at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario. The theory is also often referred to by the acronym MOG.

In the theory of general relativity, a stress–energy–momentum pseudotensor, such as the Landau–Lifshitz pseudotensor, is an extension of the non-gravitational stress–energy tensor which incorporates the energy–momentum of gravity. It allows the energy–momentum of a system of gravitating matter to be defined. In particular it allows the total of matter plus the gravitating energy–momentum to form a conserved current within the framework of general relativity, so that the total energy–momentum crossing the hypersurface of any compact space–time hypervolume vanishes.

Introduction to the mathematics of general relativity

The mathematics of general relativity are complex. In Newton's theories of motion, an object's length and the rate at which time passes remain constant while the object accelerates, meaning that many problems in Newtonian mechanics may be solved by algebra alone. In relativity, however, an object's length and the rate at which time passes both change appreciably as the object's speed approaches the speed of light, meaning that more variables and more complicated mathematics are required to calculate the object's motion. As a result, relativity requires the use of concepts such as vectors, tensors, pseudotensors and curvilinear coordinates.

Two-body problem in general relativity

The two-body problem in general relativity is the determination of the motion and gravitational field of two bodies as described by the field equations of general relativity. Solving the Kepler problem is essential to calculate the bending of light by gravity and the motion of a planet orbiting its sun. Solutions are also used to describe the motion of binary stars around each other, and estimate their gradual loss of energy through gravitational radiation. It is customary to assume that both bodies are point-like, so that tidal forces and the specifics of their material composition can be neglected.

This article will use the Einstein summation convention.


  1. 1 2 "Gravitational Potential Energy". Retrieved 10 January 2017.
  2. Alan Guth The Inflationary Universe: The Quest for a New Theory of Cosmic Origins (1997), Random House, ISBN   0-224-04448-6 Appendix A: Gravitational Energy demonstrates the negativity of gravitational energy.
  3. Tsokos, K. A. (2010). Physics for the IB Diploma Full Colour (revised ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 143. ISBN   978-0-521-13821-5. Extract of page 143
  4. Lev Davidovich Landau & Evgeny Mikhailovich Lifshitz, The Classical Theory of Fields, (1951), Pergamon Press, ISBN   7-5062-4256-7