Mercury in Tests of Relativity

Mercury's orbital motion has played an important role in the development and testing of theories of the nature of gravity because it is perturbed by the gravitational pull of the Sun and the other planets. The effect appears as a gyration, or precession, of Mercury's orbit around the Sun. This small motion, about 9.5' (0.16°) of arc per century, has been known for two centuries, and, in fact, all but about 7 percent of it—corresponding to 43" (0.012°) of arc—could be explained by the theory of gravity proposed by Isaac Newton. The discrepancy was too large to ignore, however, and explanations were offered, usually invoking as-yet-undiscovered planets within Mercury's orbit. In 1915 Albert Einstein showed that the treatment of gravity in his general theory of relativity could explain the small discrepancy. Thus, the precession of Mercury's orbit became an important observational verification of Einstein's theory.

Mercury was subsequently employed in additional tests of relativity, which made use of the fact that radar signals that are reflected from its surface when it is on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth (at superior conjunction) must pass close to the Sun. The general theory of relativity predicts that such electromagnetic signals, moving in the warped space caused by the Sun's immense gravity, will follow a slightly different path and take a slightly different time to traverse that space than if the Sun were absent. By comparing reflected radar signals with the specific predictions of the general theory, scientists achieved a second important confirmation of relativity.

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