AskDefine | Define precession

Dictionary Definition



1 the motion of a spinning body (as a top) in which it wobbles so that the axis of rotation sweeps out a cone
2 the act of preceding in time or order or rank (as in a ceremony) [syn: precedence, precedency]

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. precedence
    • ''But as it will not do to talk entirely at random, as Montaigne does, and Ralph Waldo Emerson tries to do, we must take up some little thread or threads. and string our thoughts thereupon, keeping up also a relation among them of precession and succession.
  2. In the context of "physics|countable": The wobbling motion of the axis of a spinning body when there is an external force acting on the axis.
  3. In the context of "astronomy|uncountable": The slow gyration of the earth’s axis around the pole of the ecliptic, caused mainly by the gravitational pull of the sun and moon.


physics term
astronomical term

Extensive Definition

Precession refers to a change in the direction of the axis of a rotating object. In physics, there are two types of precession, torque-free and torque-induced, the latter being discussed here in more detail. In certain contexts, "precession" may refer to the precession that the Earth experiences, the effects of this type of precession on astronomical observation, or to the precession of orbital objects.


Torque-free precession occurs when the axis of rotation differs slightly from an axis about which the object can rotate stably. Poinsot's construction is an elegant geometrical method for visualizing the torque-free motion of a rotating rigid body. For example, when a plate is thrown, the plate may have some rotation around an axis that is not its axis of symmetry. When an object is not perfectly solid, internal vortices will tend to damp torque-free precession.


Torque-induced precession (gyroscopic precession) is the phenomenon in which the axis of a spinning object (e.g. a part of a gyroscope) "wobbles" when a torque is applied to it. The phenomenon is commonly seen in a spinning toy top, but all rotating objects can undergo precession. If the speed of the rotation and the magnitude of the torque are constant the axis will describe a cone, its movement at any instant being at right angles to the direction of the torque. In the case of a toy top, if the axis is not perfectly vertical the torque is applied by the force of gravity tending to tip it over.
The device depicted on the right here is gimbal mounted. From inside to outside there are three axes of rotation: the hub of the wheel, the gimbal axis and the vertical pivot.
To distinguish between the two horizontal axes, rotation around the wheel hub will be called 'rolling', and rotation around the gimbal axis will be called 'pitching.' Rotation around the pivot axis is called 'spinning'.
First, imagine that the device is spinning around the pivot axis. Then some rotation around the wheelhub is added. Imagine the gimbal axis to be locked, so that the wheel cannot pitch. The gimbal axis has sensors, that measure whether there is a torque around the gimbal axis.
In the picture, a section of the wheel has been named 'dm1'. When the rolling starts, section dm1 is at the perimeter of the spinning motion. Section dm1 has a lot of velocity and as it is forced closer to the center of rotation, it tends to move in the direction of the top-left arrow in the diagram (shown at 45o in the direction of rolling). Section dm2 of the wheel starts out at the center of rotation, and thus initially has zero velocity before the wheel is rolled. A force would be required to increase section dm2's velocity to the velocity at the perimeter of the pivot axis' plane. If that force is not provided then section dm2's inertia will make it move in the direction of the top-right arrow. Note that both arrows point in the same direction.
The same reasoning applies for the bottom half of the wheel, but there the arrows point in the opposite direction to that of the top arrows. Combined over the entire wheel, there is a torque around the gimbal axis when some rolling is added to rotation around a vertical axis.
It is important to note that the torque around the gimbal axis arises without any delay; the response is instantaneous.
In the discussion above, the setup was kept unchanging by preventing rotation around the gimbal axis. In the case of a spinning top, when the spinning top is tilting, gravity exerts a torque. Instead of rolling over, the spinning top pitches. The pitching motion reorients the spinning top with respect to the torque that is being exerted. The result is that the torque exerted by gravity elicits gyroscopic precession rather than causing the spinning top to fall to its side.
Precession or gyroscopic considerations have an effect on bicycle performance at high speed. Precession is also the mechanism behind gyrocompasses.
Gyroscopic precession also plays a large role in the flight controls on helicopters. Since the driving force behind helicopters is the rotor disk (which rotates), gyroscopic precession comes into play. If the rotor disk is to be tilted forward (to gain forward velocity), its rotation requires that the downward net force on the blade be applied roughly 90 degrees (depending on blade configuration) before, or when the blade is to one side of the pilot and rotating forward.
To ensure the pilot's inputs are correct, the aircraft has corrective linkages which vary the blade pitch in advance of the blade's position relative to the swashplate. Although the swashplate moves in the intuitively correct direction, the blade pitch links are arranged to transmit the pitch in advance of the blade's position.


Classical (Newtonian)

Precession is the result of the angular velocity of rotation and the angular velocity produced by the torque. It is an angular velocity about a line which makes an angle with the permanent rotation axis, and this angle lies in a plane at right angles to the plane of the couple producing the torque. The permanent axis must turn towards this line, since the body cannot continue to rotate about any line which is not a principal axis of maximum moment of inertia; that is, the permanent axis turns in a direction at right angles to that in which the torque might be expected to turn it. If the rotating body is symmetrical and its motion unconstrained, and if the torque on the spin axis is at right angles to that axis, the axis of precession will be perpendicular to both the spin axis and torque axis.
Under these circumstances the angular velocity of precession is given by:
\boldsymbol\omega_p = \frac
In which Is is the moment of inertia, \boldsymbol\omega_s is the angular velocity of spin about the spin axis, and Q is the torque. Using \boldsymbol\omega = \frac, we find that the period of precession is given by:
T_p = \frac
In which Is is the moment of inertia, Ts is the period of spin about the spin axis, and Q is the torque. In general the problem is more complicated than this, however.
An informal explanation of Precession: In a classic beginning physics demonstration, the instructor stands on a swiveling platform and holds a spinning bicycle wheel at arm's length. The wheel is vertical and the instructor is standing still. The instructor then tilts the wheel toward horizontal. This causes the instructor to start spinning slowly on the platform. Bringing the wheel back to vertical and tilting it the other way makes the instructor spin the other way. Why?
Imagine the wheel as a collection of small particles. Particles want to move in a straight line. In order for them to move in a circle there must be a force accelerating the particles toward the center of the circle (acceleration is a change in speed or direction or both — in this case just direction). This force is ultimately provided by bonds between the atoms in the wheel and spokes.
What happens when the instructor turns the spinning wheel from vertical to horizontal? Consider a particle somewhere on the wheel. If the wheel weren't being tilted, it would be accelerated around the circle as always. But since the wheel is tilting, it now has to follow a new path. A change in path is an acceleration, which in turn requires force (from the instructor's hands, transmitted through the spokes to the rim). Now consider the particle opposite the first particle on the wheel. It also has to change path, but in the opposite direction. Since the forces on opposite sides are in opposite directions, the result is torque. Each pair of opposite particles on the wheel contributes to the torque that causes the instructor to turn on the platform.
Tilting the wheel the other direction produces torque in the opposite direction, slowing the instructor's spin and eventually reversing it.


The special and general theories of relativity give three types of corrections to the Newtonian precession, of a gyroscope near a large mass such as the earth, described above. They are:
  • Thomas precession a special relativistic correction accounting for the observer being in a rotating non-inertial frame.
  • de Sitter precession a general relativistic correction accounting for the schwarzschild metric of curved space near a large non-rotating mass.
  • Lense-Thirring precession a general relativistic correction accounting for the frame dragging by the Kerr metric of curved space near a large rotating mass.

Of the Earth's axis

The Earth goes through one complete precession cycle in a period of approximately 25,800 years, during which the positions of stars as measured in the equatorial coordinate system will slowly change; the change is actually due to the change of the coordinates. Over this cycle the Earth's north axial pole moves from where it is now, within 1° of Polaris, in a circle around the ecliptic pole, with an angular radius of about 23.5 degrees (or approximately 23 degrees 27 arcminutes ). The shift is 1 degree in 180 years, where the angle is taken from the observer, not from the center of the circle.
Discovery of the precession of the equinoxes is generally attributed to the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus (ca. 150 B.C.), though the difference between the sidereal and tropical years was known to Aristarchus of Samos much earlier (ca. 280 B.C.). It was later explained by Newtonian physics. The Earth has a nonspherical shape, being oblate spheroid, bulging outward at the equator. The gravitational tidal forces of the Moon and Sun apply torque as they attempt to pull the equatorial bulge into the plane of the ecliptic. The portion of the precession due to the combined action of the Sun and the Moon is called lunisolar precession.
Revolution of a planet in its orbit around the Sun is also a form of rotary motion. (In this case, the combined system of Earth and Sun is rotating.) So the axis of a planet's orbital plane will also precess over time.
The major axis of each planet's elliptical orbit also precesses within its orbital plane, partly in response to perturbations in the form of the changing gravitational forces exerted by other planets. This is called perihelion precession or apsidal precession (see apsis). Discrepancies between the observed perihelion precession rate of the planet Mercury and that predicted by classical mechanics were prominent among the forms of experimental evidence leading to the acceptance of Einstein's Theory of Relativity, which predicted the anomalies accurately.
These periodic changes of Earth's orbital parameters, combined with the precession of the equinoxes and of the inclination of the Earth's axis on its orbit, are an important part of the astronomical theory of ice ages. For precession of the lunar orbit see lunar precession.
A phenomenon analogous to apsidal precession is nodal precession (see orbital node), which affects the orientation of the orbital plane.

See also


precession in Catalan: Precessió
precession in Czech: Precese
precession in Danish: Præcession
precession in German: Präzession
precession in Estonian: Pretsessioon
precession in Spanish: Precesión
precession in Esperanto: Precesio
precession in French: Précession
precession in Irish: Luainíocht
precession in Galician: Precesión
precession in Korean: 세차운동
precession in Italian: Precessione
precession in Hebrew: נקיפה
precession in Hungarian: Precesszió
precession in Dutch: Precessie
precession in Japanese: 歳差
precession in Low German: Präzession
precession in Polish: Precesja
precession in Portuguese: Precessão
precession in Romanian: Precesie
precession in Russian: Прецессия
precession in Slovak: Precesia
precession in Slovenian: Precesija
precession in Finnish: Prekessio
precession in Swedish: Precession
precession in Thai: การหมุนควง
precession in Vietnamese: Tiến động
precession in Turkish: Presesyon
precession in Ukrainian: Прецесія
precession in Chinese: 進動
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