The barycenter (or barycentre; from the Ancient Greek heavy + ? centre) is the center of mass of two or more bodies that orbit each other and is the point about which the bodies orbit. It is an important concept in fields such as astronomy and astrophysics. The distance from a body's center of mass to the barycenter can be calculated as a two-body problem.
If one of two orbiting bodies is much more massive than the other and the bodies are relatively close to one another, the barycenter will typically be located within the more massive object. In this case, rather than the two bodies appearing to orbit a point between them, the less massive body will appear to orbit about the more massive body, while the more massive body might be observed to wobble slightly. This is the case for the Earth-Moon system, in which the barycenter is located on average 4,671 km (2,902 mi) from the Earth's center, well within Earth's radius of 6,378 km (3,963 mi). When the two bodies are of similar masses, the barycenter will generally be located between them and both bodies will follow an orbit around it. This is the case for Pluto and Charon, as well as for many binary asteroids and binary stars. When the less massive object is far away, the barycenter can be located outside the more massive object. This is the case for Jupiter and the Sun; despite the Sun being thousandfold more massive than Jupiter, their barycenter is outside the Sun due to the relatively large distance between them.
In astronomy, barycentric coordinates are non-rotating coordinates with the origin at the barycenter of two or more bodies. The International Celestial Reference System is a barycentric coordinate system centered on the Solar System's barycenter.
The barycenter is one of the foci of the elliptical orbit of each body. This is an important concept in the fields of astronomy and astrophysics. If a is the distance between the centers of the two bodies (the semi-major axis of the system), r1 is the semi-major axis of the primary's orbit around the barycenter, and is the semi-major axis of the secondary's orbit. When the barycenter is located within the more massive body, that body will appear to "wobble" rather than to follow a discernible orbit. In a simple two-body case, r1, the distance from the center of the primary to the barycenter is given by:
The following table sets out some examples from the Solar System. Figures are given rounded to three significant figures. The term primary-secondary is used to distinguish between involved participants; with the larger called "the primary", and the smaller called "the secondary".
If -- which is true for the Sun and any planet -- then the ratio approximates to:
Hence, the barycenter of the Sun-planet system will lie outside the Sun only if:
That is, where the planet is massive and far from the Sun.
If Jupiter had Mercury's orbit (57,900,000 km, 0.387 AU), the Sun-Jupiter barycenter would be approximately 55,000 km from the center of the Sun . But even if the Earth had Eris' orbit (1.02×1010 km, 68 AU), the Sun-Earth barycenter would still be within the Sun (just over 30,000 km from the center).
To calculate the actual motion of the Sun, you only need to consider the motions of the four giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune). The contributions of all other planets, dwarf planets, etc. are negligible. If the four giant planets were on a straight line on the same side of the Sun, the combined center of mass would lie about 1.17 solar radii or just over 810,000 km above the Sun's surface.
The calculations above are based on the mean distance between the bodies and yield the mean value r1. But all celestial orbits are elliptical, and the distance between the bodies varies between the apses, depending on the eccentricity, e. Hence, the position of the barycenter varies too, and it is possible in some systems for the barycenter to be sometimes inside and sometimes outside the more massive body. This occurs where:
Note that the Sun-Jupiter system, with eJupiter = 0.0484, just fails to qualify: .
Images are representative (made by hand), not simulated.
In classical mechanics, this definition simplifies calculations and introduces no known problems. In general relativity, problems arise because, while it is possible, within reasonable approximations, to define the barycenter, the associated coordinate system does not fully reflect the inequality of clock rates at different locations. Brumberg explains how to set up barycentric coordinates in general relativity.
The coordinate systems involve a world-time, i.e. a global time coordinate that could be set up by telemetry. Individual clocks of similar construction will not agree with this standard, because they are subject to differing gravitational potentials or move at various velocities, so the world-time must be slaved to some ideal clock that is assumed to be very far from the whole self-gravitating system. This time standard is called Barycentric Coordinate Time, or TCB.
Barycentric osculating orbital elements for some objects in the Solar System:
|C/2006 P1 (McNaught)||2,050||4,100||92,600|
|C/1996 B2 (Hyakutake)||1,700||3,410||70,000|
|C/2006 M4 (SWAN)||1,300||2,600||47,000|
For objects at such high eccentricity, the Sun's barycentric coordinates are more stable than heliocentric coordinates.