Roche limit

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The Roche limit (pronounced /ˈroʊʃ/), sometimes referred to as the Roche radius, is the distance within which a celestial body, held together only by its own gravity, will disintegrate due to a second celestial body's tidal forces exceeding the first body's gravitational self-attraction.[1] Inside the Roche limit, orbiting material will tend to disperse and form rings, while outside the limit, material will tend to coalesce. The term is named after Édouard Roche, the French astronomer who first calculated this theoretical limit in 1848.[2]

Typically, the Roche limit applies to a satellite disintegrating due to tidal forces induced by its primary, the body about which it orbits. Some real satellites, both natural and artificial, can orbit within their Roche limits because they are held together by forces other than gravitation. Jupiter's moon Metis and Saturn's moon Pan are examples of such satellites, which hold together because of their tensile strength. In extreme cases, objects resting on the surface of such a satellite could actually be lifted away by tidal forces. A weaker satellite, such as a comet, could be broken up when it passes within its Roche limit.

Since tidal forces overwhelm gravity within the Roche limit, no large satellite can coalesce out of smaller particles within that limit. Indeed, almost all known planetary rings are located within their Roche limit, Saturn's E-Ring and Phoebe ring being notable exceptions. They could either be remnants from the planet's proto-planetary accretion disc that failed to coalesce into moonlets, or conversely have formed when a moon passed within its Roche limit and broke apart.

It is also worth considering that the Roche limit is not the only factor that causes comets to break apart. Splitting by thermal stress, internal gas pressure and rotational splitting are a more likely way for a comet to split under stress.


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