Three-body problem

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Approximate trajectories of three identical bodies located at the vertices of a scalene triangle and having zero initial velocities. It is seen that the center of mass, in accordance with the law of conservation of momentum, remains in place. Three-body Problem Animation with COM.gif
Approximate trajectories of three identical bodies located at the vertices of a scalene triangle and having zero initial velocities. It is seen that the center of mass, in accordance with the law of conservation of momentum, remains in place.

In physics and classical mechanics, the three-body problem is the problem of taking the initial positions and velocities (or momenta) of three point masses and solving for their subsequent motion according to Newton's laws of motion and Newton's law of universal gravitation. [1] The three-body problem is a special case of the n-body problem. Unlike two-body problems, no general closed-form solution exists, [1] as the resulting dynamical system is chaotic for most initial conditions, and numerical methods are generally required.


Historically, the first specific three-body problem to receive extended study was the one involving the Moon, the Earth, and the Sun. [2] In an extended modern sense, a three-body problem is any problem in classical mechanics or quantum mechanics that models the motion of three particles.

Mathematical description

The mathematical statement of the three-body problem can be given in terms of the Newtonian equations of motion for vector positions of three gravitationally interacting bodies with masses :

where is the gravitational constant. [3] [4] This is a set of 9 second-order differential equations. The problem can also be stated equivalently in the Hamiltonian formalism, in which case it is described by a set of 18 first-order differential equations, one for each component of the positions and momenta :

where is the Hamiltonian:

In this case is simply the total energy of the system, gravitational plus kinetic.

Restricted three-body problem

The circular restricted three-body problem is a valid approximation of elliptical orbits found in the Solar System, and this can be visualized as a combination of the potentials due to the gravity of the two primary bodies along with the centrifugal effect from their rotation (Coriolis effects are dynamic and not shown). The Lagrange points can then be seen as the five places where the gradient on the resultant surface is zero (shown as blue lines), indicating that the forces are in balance there. Restricted Three-Body Problem - Energy Potential Analysis.png
The circular restricted three-body problem is a valid approximation of elliptical orbits found in the Solar System, and this can be visualized as a combination of the potentials due to the gravity of the two primary bodies along with the centrifugal effect from their rotation (Coriolis effects are dynamic and not shown). The Lagrange points can then be seen as the five places where the gradient on the resultant surface is zero (shown as blue lines), indicating that the forces are in balance there.

In the restricted three-body problem, [3] a body of negligible mass (the "planetoid") moves under the influence of two massive bodies. Having negligible mass, the force that the planetoid exerts on the two massive bodies may be neglected, and the system can be analysed and can therefore be described in terms of a two-body motion. Usually this two-body motion is taken to consist of circular orbits around the center of mass, and the planetoid is assumed to move in the plane defined by the circular orbits.

The restricted three-body problem is easier to analyze theoretically than the full problem. It is of practical interest as well since it accurately describes many real-world problems, the most important example being the Earth–Moon–Sun system. For these reasons, it has occupied an important role in the historical development of the three-body problem.

Mathematically, the problem is stated as follows. Let be the masses of the two massive bodies, with (planar) coordinates and , and let be the coordinates of the planetoid. For simplicity, choose units such that the distance between the two massive bodies, as well as the gravitational constant, are both equal to . Then, the motion of the planetoid is given by

where . In this form the equations of motion carry an explicit time dependence through the coordinates . However, this time-dependence can be removed through a transformation to a rotating reference frame, which simplifies any subsequent analysis.


General solution


There is no general analytical solution to the three-body problem given by simple algebraic expressions and integrals. [1] Moreover, the motion of three bodies is generally non-repeating, except in special cases. [5]

On the other hand, in 1912 the Finnish mathematician Karl Fritiof Sundman proved that there exists a series solution in powers of t1/3 for the 3-body problem. [6] This series converges for all real t, except for initial conditions corresponding to zero angular momentum. (In practice the latter restriction is insignificant since such initial conditions are rare, having Lebesgue measure zero.)

An important issue in proving this result is the fact that the radius of convergence for this series is determined by the distance to the nearest singularity. Therefore, it is necessary to study the possible singularities of the 3-body problems. As it will be briefly discussed below, the only singularities in the 3-body problem are binary collisions (collisions between two particles at an instant) and triple collisions (collisions between three particles at an instant).

Collisions, whether binary or triple (in fact, any number), are somewhat improbable, since it has been shown that they correspond to a set of initial conditions of measure zero. However, there is no criterion known to be put on the initial state in order to avoid collisions for the corresponding solution. So Sundman's strategy consisted of the following steps:

  1. Using an appropriate change of variables to continue analyzing the solution beyond the binary collision, in a process known as regularization.
  2. Proving that triple collisions only occur when the angular momentum L vanishes. By restricting the initial data to L0, he removed all real singularities from the transformed equations for the 3-body problem.
  3. Showing that if L0, then not only can there be no triple collision, but the system is strictly bounded away from a triple collision. This implies, by using Cauchy's existence theorem for differential equations, that there are no complex singularities in a strip (depending on the value of L) in the complex plane centered around the real axis (shades of Kovalevskaya).
  4. Find a conformal transformation that maps this strip into the unit disc. For example, if s = t1/3 (the new variable after the regularization) and if |ln s|β,[ clarification needed ] then this map is given by

This finishes the proof of Sundman's theorem.

Unfortunately, the corresponding series converges very slowly. That is, obtaining a value of meaningful precision requires so many terms that this solution is of little practical use. Indeed, in 1930, David Beloriszky calculated that if Sundman's series were to be used for astronomical observations, then the computations would involve at least 108000000 terms. [7]

Special-case solutions

In 1767, Leonhard Euler found three families of periodic solutions in which the three masses are collinear at each instant. See Euler's three-body problem.

In 1772, Lagrange found a family of solutions in which the three masses form an equilateral triangle at each instant. Together with Euler's collinear solutions, these solutions form the central configurations for the three-body problem. These solutions are valid for any mass ratios, and the masses move on Keplerian ellipses. These four families are the only known solutions for which there are explicit analytic formulae. In the special case of the circular restricted three-body problem, these solutions, viewed in a frame rotating with the primaries, become points which are referred to as L1, L2, L3, L4, and L5, and called Lagrangian points, with L4 and L5 being symmetric instances of Lagrange's solution.

In work summarized in 1892–1899, Henri Poincaré established the existence of an infinite number of periodic solutions to the restricted three-body problem, together with techniques for continuing these solutions into the general three-body problem.

In 1893, Meissel stated what is now called the Pythagorean three-body problem: three masses in the ratio 3:4:5 are placed at rest at the vertices of a 3:4:5 right triangle. Burrau [8] further investigated this problem in 1913. In 1967 Victor Szebehely and C. Frederick Peters established eventual escape for this problem using numerical integration, while at the same time finding a nearby periodic solution. [9]

In the 1970s, Michel Hénon and Roger A. Broucke each found a set of solutions that form part of the same family of solutions: the Broucke–Henon–Hadjidemetriou family. In this family the three objects all have the same mass and can exhibit both retrograde and direct forms. In some of Broucke's solutions two of the bodies follow the same path. [10]

An animation of the figure-8 solution to the three-body problem over a single period T [?] 6.3259. Three body problem figure-8 orbit animation.gif
An animation of the figure-8 solution to the three-body problem over a single period T ≃ 6.3259.

In 1993, a zero angular momentum solution with three equal masses moving around a figure-eight shape was discovered numerically by physicist Cris Moore at the Santa Fe Institute. [12] Its formal existence was later proved in 2000 by mathematicians Alain Chenciner and Richard Montgomery. [13] [14] The solution has been shown numerically to be stable for small perturbations of the mass and orbital parameters, which raises the intriguing possibility that such orbits could be observed in the physical universe. However, it has been argued that this occurrence is unlikely since the domain of stability is small. For instance, the probability of a binary–binary scattering event[ clarification needed ] resulting in a figure-8 orbit has been estimated to be a small fraction of 1%. [15]

In 2013, physicists Milovan Šuvakov and Veljko Dmitrašinović at the Institute of Physics in Belgrade discovered 13 new families of solutions for the equal-mass zero-angular-momentum three-body problem. [5] [10]

In 2015, physicist Ana Hudomal discovered 14 new families of solutions for the equal-mass zero-angular-momentum three-body problem. [16]

In 2017, researchers Xiaoming Li and Shijun Liao found 669 new periodic orbits of the equal-mass zero-angular-momentum three-body problem. [17] This was followed in 2018 by an additional 1223 new solutions for a zero-momentum system of unequal masses. [18]

In 2018, Li and Liao reported 234 solutions to the unequal-mass "free-fall" three body problem. [19] The free fall formulation of the three body problem starts with all three bodies at rest. Because of this, the masses in a free-fall configuration do not orbit in a closed "loop", but travel forwards and backwards along an open "track".

Numerical approaches

Using a computer, the problem may be solved to arbitrarily high precision using numerical integration although high precision requires a large amount of CPU time. In 2019, Breen et al. announced a fast neural network solver, trained using a numerical integrator. [20]


The gravitational problem of three bodies in its traditional sense dates in substance from 1687, when Isaac Newton published his Principia ( Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica ). In Proposition 66 of Book 1 of the Principia, and its 22 Corollaries, Newton took the first steps in the definition and study of the problem of the movements of three massive bodies subject to their mutually perturbing gravitational attractions. In Propositions 25 to 35 of Book 3, Newton also took the first steps in applying his results of Proposition 66 to the lunar theory, the motion of the Moon under the gravitational influence of the Earth and the Sun.

The physical problem was addressed by Amerigo Vespucci and subsequently by Galileo Galilei; in 1499, Vespucci used knowledge of the position of the Moon to determine his position in Brazil. It became of technical importance in the 1720s, as an accurate solution would be applicable to navigation, specifically for the determination of longitude at sea, solved in practice by John Harrison's invention of the marine chronometer. However the accuracy of the lunar theory was low, due to the perturbing effect of the Sun and planets on the motion of the Moon around the Earth.

Jean le Rond d'Alembert and Alexis Clairaut, who developed a longstanding rivalry, both attempted to analyze the problem in some degree of generality; they submitted their competing first analyses to the Académie Royale des Sciences in 1747. [21] It was in connection with their research, in Paris during the 1740s, that the name "three-body problem" (French : Problème des trois Corps) began to be commonly used. An account published in 1761 by Jean le Rond d'Alembert indicates that the name was first used in 1747. [22]

Other problems involving three bodies

The term 'three-body problem' is sometimes used in the more general sense to refer to any physical problem involving the interaction of three bodies.

A quantum mechanical analogue of the gravitational three-body problem in classical mechanics is the helium atom, in which a helium nucleus and two electrons interact according to the inverse-square Coulomb interaction. Like the gravitational three-body problem, the helium atom cannot be solved exactly. [23]

In both classical and quantum mechanics, however, there exist nontrivial interaction laws besides the inverse-square force which do lead to exact analytic three-body solutions. One such model consists of a combination of harmonic attraction and a repulsive inverse-cube force. [24] This model is considered nontrivial since it is associated with a set of nonlinear differential equations containing singularities (compared with, e.g., harmonic interactions alone, which lead to an easily solved system of linear differential equations). In these two respects it is analogous to (insoluble) models having Coulomb interactions, and as a result has been suggested as a tool for intuitively understanding physical systems like the helium atom. [24] [25]

The gravitational three-body problem has also been studied using general relativity. Physically, a relativistic treatment becomes necessary in systems with very strong gravitational fields, such as near the event horizon of a black hole. However, the relativistic problem is considerably more difficult than in Newtonian mechanics, and sophisticated numerical techniques are required. Even the full two-body problem (i.e. for arbitrary ratio of masses) does not have a rigorous analytic solution in general relativity. [26]

n-body problem

The three-body problem is a special case of the n-body problem, which describes how n objects will move under one of the physical forces, such as gravity. These problems have a global analytical solution in the form of a convergent power series, as was proven by Karl F. Sundman for n = 3 and by Qiudong Wang for n > 3 (see n-body problem for details). However, the Sundman and Wang series converge so slowly that they are useless for practical purposes; [27] therefore, it is currently necessary to approximate solutions by numerical analysis in the form of numerical integration or, for some cases, classical trigonometric series approximations (see n-body simulation). Atomic systems, e.g. atoms, ions, and molecules, can be treated in terms of the quantum n-body problem. Among classical physical systems, the n-body problem usually refers to a galaxy or to a cluster of galaxies; planetary systems, such as stars, planets, and their satellites, can also be treated as n-body systems. Some applications are conveniently treated by perturbation theory, in which the system is considered as a two-body problem plus additional forces causing deviations from a hypothetical unperturbed two-body trajectory.

See also

Related Research Articles

Angular momentum Physical quantity

In physics, angular momentum is the rotational equivalent of linear momentum. It is an important quantity in physics because it is a conserved quantity—the total angular momentum of a closed system remains constant.

Orbit Orbital gravitationally curved path of an object around a point in outer space; circular or elliptical path of one object around another object

In physics, an orbit is the gravitationally curved trajectory of an object, such as the trajectory of a planet around a star or a natural satellite around a planet. Normally, orbit refers to a regularly repeating trajectory, although it may also refer to a non-repeating trajectory. To a close approximation, planets and satellites follow elliptic orbits, with the center of mass being orbited at a focal point of the ellipse, as described by Kepler's laws of planetary motion.

Schrödinger equation Linear partial differential equation whose solution describes the quantum-mechanical system.

The Schrödinger equation is a linear partial differential equation that describes the wave function or state function of a quantum-mechanical system. It is a key result in quantum mechanics, and its discovery was a significant landmark in the development of the subject. The equation is named after Erwin Schrödinger, who postulated the equation in 1925, and published it in 1926, forming the basis for the work that resulted in his Nobel Prize in Physics in 1933.

In physics, the reduced mass is the "effective" inertial mass appearing in the two-body problem of Newtonian mechanics. It is a quantity which allows the two-body problem to be solved as if it were a one-body problem. Note, however, that the mass determining the gravitational force is not reduced. In the computation one mass can be replaced with the reduced mass, if this is compensated by replacing the other mass with the sum of both masses. The reduced mass is frequently denoted by (mu), although the standard gravitational parameter is also denoted by . It has the dimensions of mass, and SI unit kg.

Center of mass Unique point where the weighted relative position of the distributed mass sums to zero

In physics, the center of mass of a distribution of mass in space is the unique point where the weighted relative position of the distributed mass sums to zero. This is the point to which a force may be applied to cause a linear acceleration without an angular acceleration. Calculations in mechanics are often simplified when formulated with respect to the center of mass. It is a hypothetical point where the entire mass of an object may be assumed to be concentrated to visualise its motion. In other words, the center of mass is the particle equivalent of a given object for application of Newton's laws of motion.

Newton's law of universal gravitation is usually stated as that every particle attracts every other particle in the universe with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centers. The publication of the theory has become known as the "first great unification", as it marked the unification of the previously described phenomena of gravity on Earth with known astronomical behaviors.

Two-body problem Motion problem in classical mechanics

In classical mechanics, the two-body problem is to predict the motion of two massive objects which are abstractly viewed as point particles. The problem assumes that the two objects interact only with one another; the only force affecting each object arises from the other one, and all other objects are ignored.

Stellar dynamics is the branch of astrophysics which describes in a statistical way the collective motions of stars subject to their mutual gravity. The essential difference from celestial mechanics is that each star contributes more or less equally to the total gravitational field, whereas in celestial mechanics the pull of a massive body dominates any satellite orbits.

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 an object to that location from a fixed reference location. 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 classical mechanics, the Laplace–Runge–Lenz (LRL) vector is a vector used chiefly to describe the shape and orientation of the orbit of one astronomical body around another, such as a planet revolving around a star. For two bodies interacting by Newtonian gravity, the LRL vector is a constant of motion, meaning that it is the same no matter where it is calculated on the orbit; equivalently, the LRL vector is said to be conserved. More generally, the LRL vector is conserved in all problems in which two bodies interact by a central force that varies as the inverse square of the distance between them; such problems are called Kepler problems.

Elliptic orbit Keplers orbit with an eccentricity of less than 1

In astrodynamics or celestial mechanics, an elliptic orbit or elliptical orbit is a Kepler orbit with an eccentricity of less than 1; this includes the special case of a circular orbit, with eccentricity equal to 0. In a stricter sense, it is a Kepler orbit with the eccentricity greater than 0 and less than 1. In a wider sense, it is a Kepler's orbit with negative energy. This includes the radial elliptic orbit, with eccentricity equal to 1.

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.

Perturbation (astronomy) the classical approach to the many-body problem of astronomy

In astronomy, perturbation is the complex motion of a massive body subject to forces other than the gravitational attraction of a single other massive body. The other forces can include a third body, resistance, as from an atmosphere, and the off-center attraction of an oblate or otherwise misshapen body.

In physics and astronomy, Euler's three-body problem is to solve for the motion of a particle that is acted upon by the gravitational field of two other point masses that are fixed in space. This problem is exactly solvable, and yields an approximate solution for particles moving in the gravitational fields of prolate and oblate spheroids. This problem is named after Leonhard Euler, who discussed it in memoirs published in 1760. Important extensions and analyses were contributed subsequently by Lagrange, Liouville, Laplace, Jacobi, Darboux, Le Verrier, Velde, Hamilton, Poincaré, Birkhoff and E. T. Whittaker, among others.

The Schrödinger–Newton equation, sometimes referred to as the Newton–Schrödinger or Schrödinger–Poisson equation, is a nonlinear modification of the Schrödinger equation with a Newtonian gravitational potential, where the gravitational potential emerges from the treatment of the wave function as a mass density, including a term that represents interaction of a particle with its own gravitational field. The inclusion of a self-interaction term represents a fundamental alteration of quantum mechanics. It can be written either as a single integro-differential equation or as a coupled system of a Schrödinger and a Poisson equation. In the latter case it is also referred to in the plural form.

In classical mechanics, the Kepler problem is a special case of the two-body problem, in which the two bodies interact by a central force F that varies in strength as the inverse square of the distance r between them. The force may be either attractive or repulsive. The problem is to find the position or speed of the two bodies over time given their masses, positions, and velocities. Using classical mechanics, the solution can be expressed as a Kepler orbit using six orbital elements.

Two-body problem in general relativity Interaction of two bodies 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.

Kepler orbit describes the motion of an orbiting body as an ellipse, parabola, or hyperbola

In celestial mechanics, a Kepler orbit is the motion of one body relative to another, as an ellipse, parabola, or hyperbola, which forms a two-dimensional orbital plane in three-dimensional space. A Kepler orbit can also form a straight line. It considers only the point-like gravitational attraction of two bodies, neglecting perturbations due to gravitational interactions with other objects, atmospheric drag, solar radiation pressure, a non-spherical central body, and so on. It is thus said to be a solution of a special case of the two-body problem, known as the Kepler problem. As a theory in classical mechanics, it also does not take into account the effects of general relativity. Keplerian orbits can be parametrized into six orbital elements in various ways.

<span class="texhtml mvar" style="font-style:italic;">n</span>-body problem Problem of predicting the individual motions of a group of celestial objects interacting with each other gravitationally

In physics, the n-body problem is the problem of predicting the individual motions of a group of celestial objects interacting with each other gravitationally. Solving this problem has been motivated by the desire to understand the motions of the Sun, Moon, planets, and visible stars. In the 20th century, understanding the dynamics of globular cluster star systems became an important n-body problem. The n-body problem in general relativity is considerably more difficult to solve.

Orbit modeling is the process of creating mathematical models to simulate motion of a massive body as it moves in orbit around another massive body due to gravity. Other forces such as gravitational attraction from tertiary bodies, air resistance, solar pressure, or thrust from a propulsion system are typically modeled as secondary effects. Directly modeling an orbit can push the limits of machine precision due to the need to model small perturbations to very large orbits. Because of this, perturbation methods are often used to model the orbit in order to achieve better accuracy.


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  11. Here the gravitational constant G has been set to 1, and the initial conditions are r1(0) = −r3(0) = (−0.97000436, 0.24308753); r2(0) = (0,0); v1(0) = v3(0) = (0.4662036850, 0.4323657300); v2(0) = (−0.93240737, −0.86473146). The values are obtained from Chenciner & Montgomery (2000).
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  21. The 1747 memoirs of both parties can be read in the volume of Histoires (including Mémoires) of the Académie Royale des Sciences for 1745 (belatedly published in Paris in 1749) (in French):
    Clairaut: "On the System of the World, according to the principles of Universal Gravitation" (at pp. 329364); and
    d'Alembert: "General method for determining the orbits and the movements of all the planets, taking into account their mutual actions" (at pp. 365–390).
    The peculiar dating is explained by a note printed on page 390 of the "Memoirs" section: "Even though the preceding memoirs, of Messrs. Clairaut and d'Alembert, were only read during the course of 1747, it was judged appropriate to publish them in the volume for this year" (i.e. the volume otherwise dedicated to the proceedings of 1745, but published in 1749).
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Further reading