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ERIC Number: EJ896107
Record Type: Journal
Publication Date: 2010-Sep
Pages: 4
Abstractor: As Provided
ISSN: ISSN-0031-921X
Why Are So Many Things in the Solar System Round?
Heilig, Steven J.
Physics Teacher, v48 n6 p377-380 Sep 2010
Several years ago a student asked why so many things in the solar system were round. He noted that many objects in the solar system, although not all, are round. The standard answer, which he knew, is that the mutual gravitational attraction of the molecules pulls them into the shape that gets them as close to each other as possible: a sphere. This argument works fine for fluid bodies such as the Sun or Jupiter, but it isn't so simple for a solid object--we have all seen rocks that are not round. There is still a gravitational attraction acting between the rock's molecules, but for small rocks that force does not overcome the strength of the bonds holding those molecules in their relative positions. Since the strength of the gravitational force grows with the size of the object, a large enough rock will have a strong enough gravitational attraction to force a deformation into a round shape. But how large is that? A simple model gives an answer to this question. There is also renewed interest in this topic as a result of the new definition of a planet approved by the International Astronomical Union, which says in part, "A "planet" is a celestial body that... has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape." What size object is large enough to satisfy this criterion? Where does Pluto fall regarding this question?
American Association of Physics Teachers. One Physics Ellipse, College Park, MD 20740. Tel: 301-209-3300; Fax: 301-209-0845; e-mail:; Web site:
Publication Type: Journal Articles; Reports - Descriptive
Education Level: N/A
Audience: N/A
Language: English
Sponsor: N/A
Authoring Institution: N/A