Hill sphere

Last updated on 24 March 2017

An astronomical body's Hill sphere is the region in which it dominates the attraction of satellites. The outer shell of that region constitutes a zero-velocity surface. To be retained by a planet, a moon must have an orbit that lies within the planet's Hill sphere. That moon would, in turn, have a Hill sphere of its own. Any object within that distance would tend to become a satellite of the moon, rather than of the planet itself. One simple view of the extent of the Solar System is the Hill sphere of the Sun with respect to local stars and the galactic nucleus.

In more precise terms, the Hill sphere approximates the gravitational sphere of influence of a smaller body in the face of perturbations from a more massive body. It was defined by the American astronomer George William Hill, based on the work of the French astronomer Édouard Roche. For this reason, it is also known as the Roche sphere (not to be confused with the Roche limit).

In the example to the right, the Hill sphere extends between the Lagrangian points L1 and L2, which lie along the line of centers of the two bodies. The region of influence of the second body is shortest in that direction, and so it acts as the limiting factor for the size of the Hill sphere. Beyond that distance, a third object in orbit around the second (e.g. a satellite of Jupiter) would spend at least part of its orbit outside the Hill sphere, and would be progressively perturbed by the tidal forces of the central body (e.g. the Sun), eventually ending up orbiting the latter.

Lagrange points2.svg
A contour plot of the effective potential of a two-body system due to gravity and inertia at one point in time. The Hill spheres are the circular regions surrounding the two large masses.

Formula and examples

If the mass of the smaller body (e.g. Earth) is m, and it orbits a heavier body (e.g. Sun) of mass M with a semi-major axis a and an eccentricity of e, then the radius r of the Hill sphere for the smaller body (e.g. Earth) is, approximately

When eccentricity is negligible (the most favourable case for orbital stability), this becomes

In the Earth example, the Earth (5.97×1024 kg) orbits the Sun (1.99×1030 kg) at a distance of 149.6 million km. The Hill sphere for Earth thus extends out to about 1.5 million km (0.01 au). The Moon's orbit, at a distance of 0.384 million km from Earth, is comfortably within the gravitational sphere of influence of Earth and it is therefore not at risk of being pulled into an independent orbit around the Sun. All stable satellites of the Earth (those within the Earth's Hill sphere) must have an orbital period shorter than seven months.

The previous (eccentricity-ignoring) formula can be re-stated as follows:

This expresses the relation in terms of the volume of the Hill sphere compared with the volume of the second body's orbit around the first; specifically, the ratio of the masses is three times the ratio of the volume of these two spheres.

A quick way of estimating the radius of the Hill sphere comes from replacing mass with density in the above equation:

where and are the densities of the primary and secondary bodies, and and are their radii. The second approximation is justified by the fact that, for most cases in the Solar System, happens to be close to one. (The Earth–Moon system is the largest exception, and this approximation is within 20% for most of Saturn's satellites.) This is also convenient, because many planetary astronomers work in and remember distances in units of planetary radii.

True region of stability

The Hill sphere is only an approximation, and other forces (such as radiation pressure or the Yarkovsky effect) can eventually perturb an object out of the sphere. This third object should also be of small enough mass that it introduces no additional complications through its own gravity. Detailed numerical calculations show that orbits at or just within the Hill sphere are not stable in the long term; it appears that stable satellite orbits exist only inside 1/2 to 1/3 of the Hill radius. The region of stability for retrograde orbits at a large distance from the primary, is larger than the region for prograde orbits at a large distance from the primary. This was thought to explain the preponderance of retrograde moons around Jupiter; however, Saturn has a more even mix of retrograde/prograde moons so the reasons are more complicated.

Further examples

An astronaut could not have orbited the Space Shuttle (with mass of 104 tonnes), where the orbit was 300 km above the Earth, because its Hill sphere at that altitude was only 120 cm in radius, much smaller than the shuttle itself. A sphere of this size and mass would be denser than lead. In fact, in any low Earth orbit, a spherical body must be more dense than lead in order to fit inside its own Hill sphere, or else it will be incapable of supporting an orbit. A spherical geostationary satellite, however, would only need to be more than 6% of the density of water to support satellites of its own.

Within the Solar System, the planet with the largest Hill radius is Neptune, with 116 million km, or 0.775 au; its great distance from the Sun amply compensates for its small mass relative to Jupiter (whose own Hill radius measures 53 million km). An asteroid from the asteroid belt will have a Hill sphere that can reach 220 000 km (for 1 Ceres), diminishing rapidly with decreasing mass. The Hill sphere of (66391) 1999 KW4, a Mercury-crosser asteroid that has a moon (S/2001 (66391) 1), measures 22 km in radius.

A typical extrasolar "hot Jupiter", HD 209458 b, has a Hill sphere radius of 593,000 km, about 8 times its physical radius of approx 71,000 km. Even the smallest close-in extrasolar planet, CoRoT-7b, still has a Hill sphere radius (61,000 km) six times its physical radius (approx 10,000 km). Therefore, these planets could have small moons close in, although not within their respective Roche limits.

Solar System

The following logarithmic plot shows the Hill radius (in km) of some bodies of the Solar System:

See also

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