Science  15 Mar 2013:
Vol. 339, Issue 6125, pp. 1259
  1. Thirteen New Solutions to Three-Body Problem

    It's an abstract puzzle to keep a scientist awake at night: How will three objects orbit one another in a repeating pattern? Isaac Newton raised the "three-body problem" in the 1680s when he showed that the law of gravity predicts the orbit of two bodies, such as a star and a planet, but not three. Since then, just three families of solutions have been found. Now, two physicists have discovered 13 more—which could help astrophysicists understand new planetary systems.

    Mathematicians eventually determined that the motion of three bodies is nonrepeating, except under specific conditions, and sorted those into three families: the Lagrange-Euler family (objects chasing one another like merry-go-round horses), the self-explanatory figure-eight family, and the Broucke-Hénon family (two objects dashing back and forth while a third orbits them).

    To find the 13 new families, physicists Milovan Šuvakov and Veljko Dmitraainović at the Institute of Physics Belgrade started with an existing solution on a computer simulation and tweaked its initial conditions until a new type of orbit materialized, they report in a paper in press at Physical Review Letters. The next step is to see how many of their new solutions are stable—and might be glimpsed in space.

Log in to view full text

Navigate This Article