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Dr. Christopher S. Baird

What is the speed of gravity?

Category: Physics      Published: April 30, 2013

animaiton of gravitational waves
Gravitational effects travel at the speed of light in vacuum. Public Domain Image, source: NASA.

The earth is held in its orbit about the sun by the sun's gravity. What if the sun suddenly disappeared, along with its light and gravity? As should be obvious, the earth would go dark and would slingshot out of the solar system. But when would the earth stop feeling the sun's gravity and tumble out of its orbit? Would it happen at the exact same instant that the sun disappeared? Would it happen some time after the sun disappeared but before the sun is seen to go dark? Or would the earth leave orbit after the sun was seen to go dark? The answer to these questions depends on the speed of gravity, which is more accurately called "the speed of gravitational change propagation" or "the speed of gravitational waves". Einstein's theory of General Relativity predicts that the speed of gravitational waves exactly equals the speed of light in vacuum. This is not a coincidence. In modern physics, all massless particles/waves travel at the speed of light in vacuum. This includes gravitational waves which propagate changes in the gravitational field, light waves which propagate changes in the electromagnetic field, and gluons which propagate changes in the strong nuclear force field. In fact, the phrase "speed of light" can be misleading as it seems to make light look special. A better name would be "the universal speed limit", or "the speed of massless particles".

Returning back to our thought experiment, we can work out what would happen to the earth. The moment the sun disappeared, it would stop generating light and gravity. Both of these changes would propagate out to the earth at the speed of light in vacuum, which is about 300 million meters per second (671 million mph). The earth sits about 150 billion meters (93 million miles) distant from the sun, so it takes about eight and a half minutes for light and gravitational effects from the sun to reach the earth. This means that earth's sky would not go dark and earth would not leave orbit until eight and a half minutes after the sun had disappeared. Similarly, the center of our galaxy is 27,000 light years away from the earth, so if the galactic center suddenly disappeared, we would not feel the gravitational effects until 27,000 years later.

The theoretical prediction that gravitational waves travel at the speed of light in vacuum has been confirmed experimentally. Analysis of the slowing down of the orbital velocity of binary pulsar star systems has lead to a measured speed of gravitational waves that matches the speed of light to within 1%.

Topics: general relativity, gravitational waves, gravity, light, speed of gravity, speed of light, wave, waves