Precession (astronomy)

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Precession is a change in the orientation of the rotation axis of a rotating body. It can be defined as a change in direction of the rotation axis in which the second Euler angle (nutation) is constant. In physics, there are two types of precession: torque-free and torque-induced.

In astronomy, "precession" refers to any of several slow changes in an astronomical body's rotational or orbital parameters, and especially to the Earth's precession of the equinoxes. See Precession (astronomy).



Torque-free precession occurs when the axis of rotation differs slightly from an axis about which the object can rotate stably: a maximum or minimum principal axis. Poinsot's construction is an elegant geometrical method for visualizing the torque-free motion of a rotating rigid body. For example, when a plate is thrown, the plate may have some rotation around an axis that is not its axis of symmetry. This occurs because the angular momentum (L) is constant in absence of torques. Therefore it will have to be constant in the external reference frame, but the moment of inertia tensor (I) is non-constant in this frame because of the lack of symmetry. Therefore the spin angular velocity vector (ωs) about the spin axis will have to evolve in time so that the matrix product L = Iωs remains constant.

When an object is not perfectly solid, internal vortices will tend to damp torque-free precession, and the rotation axis will align itself with one of the inertia axes of the body.

The torque-free precession rate of an object with an axis of symmetry, such as a disk, spinning about an axis not aligned with that axis of symmetry can be calculated as follows:

where \boldsymbol\omega_p is the precession rate, \boldsymbol\omega_s is the spin rate about the axis of symmetry, \boldsymbol\alpha is the angle between the axis of symmetry and the axis about which it precesses, \boldsymbol I_s is the moment of inertia about the axis of symmetry, and \boldsymbol I_p is moment of inertia about either of the other two perpendicular principal axes. They should be the same, due to the symmetry of the disk.[1]

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