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Frequently Asked Questions

Below is a list of frequently asked questions, divided into two categories - Solar System Questions that deal solely with solar system simulations, and General Questions that deal with all types of simulations. If you can't find the answer to your question here, please contact us so that we can help you out.

Solar System Questions

General Questions

Answers to Solar System Questions

Why is Pluto still included as a planet in the solar system simulations?

While Pluto is no longer officially classified as a planet, many people still think of it as one, and that's the reason why it's still included. If you'd rather not have it classified as a planet, you can either select and delete it, or edit it to change its type from planet to asteroid.

How is the change from Julian calendar to Gregorian calendar taken into account?

The change from Julian calendar to Gregorian calendar is automatically taken into account by making 15th October 1582 the day following 4th October 1582. If you evolve a simulation to 1st October 1582 and then step forward a day a time, the date will jump from 4th October 1582 to 15th October 1582.

How do you create a geostationary satellite orbiting the Earth?

To create a geostationary satellite orbiting the Earth, use the following sequence of instructions.

  1. Open the Planets, Moon sample simulation, or one of the other sample simulations that includes the Moon.
  2. Choose the Edit / Add Object... command, and select the Earth as the parent.
  3. Click on the Details >> icon (Show more choices icon on a Mac) to display the full range of fields that can be edited.
  4. Enter a suitable name, type, radius, and mass for the satellite.
  5. Set the period to 0.9972695664 days = 23.93446959 hours = 86164.09054 seconds.
  6. Set the eccentricity to 0.
  7. Set the inclination to 23.4375 degrees.
  8. Set the ascending node to 180 degrees.
  9. Set the true longitude if desired. This determines the position of the satellite in the geostationary orbit.
  10. Finally, click on OK to create the satellite.

Note that when you run the simulation, the satellite will only stay in position in the short-term when viewed from a location on the Earth's surace. Geostationary satellites slowly drift away from their desired positions, and need regular orbital stationkeeping manoeuvres to keep them in position.

Why does the 'Edit / Import Objects...' command fail to download any data?

If you find that the Edit / Import Objects... command fails to download any data, this is probably caused by over-aggressive firewall settings preventing the data from downloading. If you experiment with different firewall settings, you should be able to get it to work.

Are the gravitational perturbations caused by large asteroids taken into account?

You can choose which gravitational perturbations to take into account by choosing the Evolve / Settings... command, and adjusting the Threshold setting. This setting allows you to choose the mass threshold below which the gravitational influence of objects is ignored, so that by setting the mass threshold to zero, the gravitational influence of all objects are taken into account. Conversely, setting the mass threshold to somewhere between Jupiter's mass and the Sun's mass will ensure that only the gravitational influence of the Sun is taken into account, so that all others objects will move in perfect ellipses, parabolas, or hyperbolas (ignoring general relativity).

The default setting for the mass threshold in the solar system sample simulations has been set to 1.0e21 kg, which excludes all main belt asteroids. If you want to take into account the gravitational perturbations caused by asteroids, you will need to reduce this figure appropriately, depending on how many asteroids you want to take into account. While setting the mass threshold to zero will ensure that all asteroids get taken into account, all the extra calculations involved will make simulations run more slowly, so that an intermediate value might be preferable.

Why doesn't Mercury's precession agree with the published figure?

If you run the solar system forward with general relativity switched on, you will find that Mercury's precession is 574 arcseconds per century, which is much greater than the published figure of 43 arcseconds per century. This is because the published figure of 43 arcseconds per century is the anomalous precession, whereas AstroGrav's 574 arcseconds per century includes a gravitational precession of 531 arcseconds per century that is caused by the gravitational influence of the other planets. If you run the solar system forward with general relativity switched off, you will find that Mercury's precession is now about 531 arcseconds per century, so that the difference between the two (574-531) is 43 arcseconds per century. This is in agreement with the published figure.

Alternatively, if you delete everything in the solar system except for the Sun and Mercury, you will find that there is zero precession when general relativity is switched off, and a precession of 43 arcseconds per century when general relativity is switched on. Again, this is in agreement with the published figure.

Can I stop the background stars from moving when viewing from the Earth with one day time steps?

When you specify one day as the time step, this means one mean solar day (24 hours). To stop the background stars from moving, you need to specify one sidereal day instead. To do this, use an evolution time step of 0.997269566435 days, instead of 1.0 days. In most cases, the approximation of 0.99727 days should be adequate.

For use with other time step units:

  • 0.997269566435 days =
  • 23.9344695944 hours =
  • 1,436.06817567 minutes =
  • 86,164.09054 seconds

Answers to General Questions

How can I find the distance between two objects?

This is most easily be done selecting the two objects in a view window, and then using the View / Show Selected / Distances command to display the distance between the two objects.

Alternatively, this can be done by viewing one object from another with object data displayed.

  1. Use the Window / New View command to create a new view window, or use the Window / Duplicate command to duplicate an existing view window.
  2. Use the View / View From... command to select one of the objects (or a location on the Earth) to view from.
  3. Use the Edit / Find... command to find the second object. You'll then be viewing the second object from the first.
  4. Use the View / Show All / Data or View / Show Selected / Data command to display the distance, relative speed, magnitude, and phase of the second object as viewed from the first.
Is there any way to speed up a simulation?

While watching simulations evolve, you may wish to speed them up. There are several different ways to do this, with the best one(s) depending on circumstances.

If you're watching an animating simulation, it's very likely that most of the processing power is being spent displaying the ever-changing windows, with relatively little processing power being spent on evolution calculations. Closing or iconizing unnecessary windows is the best way to reduce the amount of processing required, and so speed up the simulation.

Alternatively, increasing the time step by using the Evolve / Settings... command can greatly speed things up at the cost reducing the frame rate. AstroGrav can handle arbitrarily large time steps with little or no loss of accuracy, so this can be a very effective way of speeding up a simulation.

If you have a simulation in which most of the objects are of low mass and you're willing to ignore the interactions between these low mass objects, increasing the mass threshold with the Evolve / Settings... command can greatly speed up the simulation. You can find more information about the mass threshold in the answer to one of the other questions.

If you have a simulation in which there are objects with very large differences in their orbital periods, most of the evolution processing power is spent dealing with the short period objects. Merging these short period objects with their parents using the Edit / Merge Objects command or deleting them with the Edit / Delete command can greatly speed up a simulation. For example, the Planets simulation runs much faster than the Planets, All Moons simulation, because of the absence of short period moons. In most situations, merging short period objects with their parents is preferable to deleting them, and this is how the Planets simulation was created from the Planets, All Moons simulation.

The Planets sample simulation with just a table window visible and the time step set to 1,000 years is an example that combines all of the above methods for speeding up a simulation. Running it forwards, you can study the changing orbital elements of the planets over periods of millions of years.

What sort of 3D glasses are best for use with AstroGrav?

AstroGrav's 3D views look best with red/cyan glasses. That's red for the left eye and cyan for the right eye. The software is set up for red/cyan glasses by default, but AstroGrav supports a total of nine different combinations that may be chosen by using the Edit / Preferences... command (AstroGrav / Preferences... on a Mac) to edit the preferences:

  • red/cyan
  • red/green
  • red/blue
  • green/magenta
  • green/blue
  • green/red
  • blue/yellow
  • blue/red
  • blue/green

For AstroGrav's 3D views to be viewable, you must select the 3D glasses preference that matches your physical 3D glasses.

Why are the orbits of most objects blue, but some of them red?

AstroGrav displays closed orbits (ellipses) in blue and open orbits (parabolas and hyperbolas) in red, so that they can be very easily distinguished. You can change these default colors by using the Edit / Preferences... command (AstroGrav / Preferences... on a Mac) to edit the preferences, so that you can make all orbits display in the same color if you wish.

How are the brightnesses / magnitudes of comets calculated?

The brightnesses of comets are calculated by summing two components - a passive component and an active component. The passive component is the brightness of an asteroid of the same size and color, whereas the active component is calculated from the well-known formula for calculating comet magnitudes:

    m = H + 5logΔ + 10logr

This ensures that the active component dominates when a comet is close to an illuminating star, and the passive component dominates when a comet is far from an illuminating star.

Is it possible to select multiple objects on a view window?

There are several different ways to select multiple objects on a view window.

  • The Edit / Select All command can be used to select all of the objects in a simulation, including any that are not currently visible in the window. [The Edit / Deselect All command can be used to deselect all of the objects in a simulation.]
  • Clicking on an object while holding down the Control key (Command key on a Mac) selects the object if it's currently deselected, and deselects the object if it's currently selected.
  • Clicking on an object while holding down the Shift key changes the selection state (selected to deselected and vice-versa) of all objects bounded by a rectangle formed between this click and the previous click. Care should be taken to ensure that objects aren't accidentally included when doing this.

Clicking on an object selects it whilst desecting all other objects.

How do you enter the date / time of periapsis for an object?

The date / time of periapsis for an object can't be entered directly, but there are two different ways of entering it indirectly.

(1) Evolve the simulation to the date / time of periapsis, and then set the object's true anomaly to zero. If desired, you can then evolve the simulation back to the original date / time. This works because the true anomaly, eccentric anomaly, and mean anomaly are all zero at periapsis. While this is a very simple method, gravitational perturbations by other objects will occur during evolution, and this may not be what you want.

(2) The mean anomaly of an object has the useful property that it changes at a constant rate, unlike the true anomaly that changes at a varying rate. It increases constantly from -180 degrees to +180 degrees over one orbit. What you need to do is to calculate the proportion of the orbit between the current time and the time of periapsis, multiply by 360 (to convert revolutions to degrees), and enter minus this value in the mean anomaly. For example, if the date of periapsis is 5 years in the future and the orbital period is 60 years, then periapsis is 5/60 = 1/12 of an orbital period in the future, which is 360/12 = 30 degrees of mean anomaly. You then need to enter -30 degrees into the mean anomaly. It's easy to get the sign wrong, so it's a good idea to check that you've calculated it correctly by running the simulation forward to the date / time of periapsis to ensure that the object reaches periapsis as expected. You can then use the Edit / Undo command to undo this evolution if desired.

The true anomaly appears under the orbital elements in table and object windows, and the mean anomaly appears under the other elements in table and object windows.

How can I create a rubble pile?

The easiest way to create a rubble pile is by using the Edit / Split Object... command to form the components of the rubble pile from a single larger object. You first choose or create a suitable object with the characteristics (mass, volume, orbit, etc) of the entire rubble pile, and then decompose this into a rotating or non-rotating rubble pile using the Edit / Split Object... command. Having created the rubble pile, you then use the Evolve / Settings... command to change the collision type to bounce, and then run the simulation forward. [If you use a collision type of combine, the components will usually quickly re-combine to form the original object.]

The individual components of a rubble pile will be attracted by their mutual gravitational attraction, and in most cases, this will result in the components of the rubble pile staying together. However, if you set your rubble pile rotating too rapidly, it will fall apart, as illustrated in the Binary Asteroid Formation movie. A rubble pile will also fall apart if it passes too close to a more massive object, because the tidal forces disrupting the components of the rubble pile exceeds their mutual gravitational attraction, and so the components will disperse. A collision with another object may shatter a rubble pile if the other object is massive enough or is moving fast enough relative to the rubble pile.