If you’ve ever watched or read a space opera (oh yes, you have), you know about the *gravity well* that a spacecraft has to climb out of when leaving a planet. Every time I see the Museum’s gravity well model (photo below), I’m reminded of all the answers the guy gave to, “Johnny, what can you make of this?”

The model’s a great visitor-attracter with those “planets” whizzing around the “Sun,” but this one exhibit really represents several distinct concepts. For some of them it’s not quite the right shape.

The simplest concept is geometrical. “Down” is the direction you move when gravity’s pulling on you.

A gravity well model for that concept would be just a straight line between you and the neighborhood’s most intense gravity source.

You learned the second concept in high school physics class.* * Any object has * gravitational potential energy* that measures the amount of energy it would give up on falling. Your teacher probably showed you the equation

*GPE = m·g·h*, where

*m*is the mass of the object,

*h*is its height above ground level, and

*g*is a constant you may have determined in a lab experiment.

If the width of the gravity well model at a given height represents *GPE* at that level, the model is a simple straight-sided cone.

But of course it’s not that simple. Newton’s Law of Gravity says that the potential energy at any height *r* away from the planet’s center is proportional to *1/r*.

Hmm… that looks different from the “proportional to *h*” equation. Which is right?

Both equations are valid, but over different distance scales. The HS teachers didn’t quite lie to you, but they didn’t give you the complete picture either. Your classroom was about 4000 miles (21,120,000 feet) from Earth’s center, whereas the usual experiments involve height differences of at most a dozen feet. Even the 20-foot drop from a second-story window is less than a millionth of the way down to Earth’s center.

Check my numbers:

Height h |
1/(r+h)× 10 ^{8} |
Difference in 1/(r+h)× 10 ^{14} |
---|---|---|

0 | 4.734,848,484 | 0 |

20 | 4.734,844,001 | 4.48 |

40 | 4.734,839,517 | 8.97 |

60 | 4.734,835,033 | 13.45 |

80 | 4.734,830,549 | 17.93 |

100 | 4.734,826,066 | 22.42 |

Sure enough, that’s a straight line (see the chart). Reminds me of how Newton’s Law of Gravity is valid except at very short distances. The HS Law of Gravity works fine for small spans but when the distances get big we have to use Newton’s equation.

We’re not done yet. That curvy funnel-shaped gravity well model could represent the *force* of gravity rather than its potential energy. Newton told us that the force goes as *1/r ^{2}* so it decreases much more rapidly than the potential energy does as you get further away. The gravity

*force*well has a correspondingly sharper curve to it than the gravity

*energy*well.

The funnel model could also represent the total energy required to get a real spacecraft off the surface and up into space. Depending on which sci-fi gimmickry is in play, the energy may come from a chemical or ion rocket, an electromagnetic railgun, or even a tractor beam from some mothership way up there.

No matter the technology, the theoretical energy requirement to get to a given height is the same. In practice, however, each technology is optimal for some situations but forbiddingly inefficient in others. Thus, each technology’s funnel has its own shape and that shape will change depending on the setting.

In modern physics, the funnel model could also represent Einstein’s theory of how a mass “bends” the space around it. (Take a look at this post, which is about how mass curves space by changing the local distance scale.) Cosmologists describe the resulting “shapes” with *embedding diagrams* that are essentially 2D pictures of 3D (or 4D) contour plots. The contours are closest together where space is most compressed, just as lines showing a steep hillside on a landscape contour map are close together.

The ED around a non-spinning object looks just like the force model picture above. No surprise — gravitational force is how we we perceive spatial curvature.

~~ Rich Olcott