In physics and classical mechanics, the three-body problem is the problem of taking the initial positions and velocities (or momenta) of three point masses and solving for their subsequent motion according to Newton's laws of motion and Newton's law of universal gravitation. The three-body problem is a special case of the n-body problem. Unlike two-body problems, no general closed-form solution exists, as the resulting dynamical system is chaotic for most initial conditions, and numerical methods are generally required.
Historically, the first specific three-body problem to receive extended study was the one involving the Moon, Earth, and the Sun. In an extended modern sense, a three-body problem is any problem in classical mechanics or quantum mechanics that models the motion of three particles.
In the restricted three-body problem, a body of negligible mass (the "planetoid") moves under the influence of two massive bodies. Having negligible mass, the force that the planetoid exerts on the two massive bodies may be neglected, and the system can be analysed and can therefore be described in terms of a two-body motion. Usually this two-body motion is taken to consist of circular orbits around the center of mass, and the planetoid is assumed to move in the plane defined by the circular orbits.
The restricted three-body problem is easier to analyze theoretically than the full problem. It is of practical interest as well since it accurately describes many real-world problems, the most important example being the Earth–Moon–Sun system. For these reasons, it has occupied an important role in the historical development of the three-body problem.
There is no general closed-form solution to the three-body problem, meaning there is no general solution that can be expressed in terms of a finite number of standard mathematical operations. Moreover, the motion of three bodies is generally non-repeating, except in special cases.
However, in 1912 the Finnish mathematician Karl Fritiof Sundman proved that there exists an analytic solution to the three-body problem in the form of a power series in terms of powers of t1/3. This series converges for all real t, except for initial conditions corresponding to zero angular momentum. In practice, the latter restriction is insignificant since initial conditions with zero angular momentum are rare, having Lebesgue measure zero.
An important issue in proving this result is the fact that the radius of convergence for this series is determined by the distance to the nearest singularity. Therefore, it is necessary to study the possible singularities of the three-body problems. As will be briefly discussed below, the only singularities in the three-body problem are binary collisions (collisions between two particles at an instant) and triple collisions (collisions between three particles at an instant).
Collisions, whether binary or triple (in fact, any number), are somewhat improbable, since it has been shown that they correspond to a set of initial conditions of measure zero. However, there is no criterion known to be put on the initial state in order to avoid collisions for the corresponding solution. So Sundman's strategy consisted of the following steps:
The corresponding series, however, converges very slowly. That is, obtaining a value of meaningful precision requires so many terms that this solution is of little practical use. Indeed, in 1930, David Beloriszky calculated that if Sundman's series were to be used for astronomical observations, then the computations would involve at least 108000000 terms.
In 1772, Lagrange found a family of solutions in which the three masses form an equilateral triangle at each instant. Together with Euler's collinear solutions, these solutions form the central configurations for the three-body problem. These solutions are valid for any mass ratios, and the masses move on Keplerian ellipses. These four families are the only known solutions for which there are explicit analytic formulae. In the special case of the circular restricted three-body problem, these solutions, viewed in a frame rotating with the primaries, become points which are referred to as L1, L2, L3, L4, and L5, and called Lagrangian points, with L4 and L5 being symmetric instances of Lagrange's solution.
In work summarized in 1892–1899, Henri Poincaré established the existence of an infinite number of periodic solutions to the restricted three-body problem, together with techniques for continuing these solutions into the general three-body problem.
In 1893, Meissel stated what is now called the Pythagorean three-body problem: three masses in the ratio 3:4:5 are placed at rest at the vertices of a 3:4:5 right triangle. Burrau further investigated this problem in 1913. In 1967 Victor Szebehely and C. Frederick Peters established eventual escape for this problem using numerical integration, while at the same time finding a nearby periodic solution.
In the 1970s, Michel Hénon and Roger A. Broucke each found a set of solutions that form part of the same family of solutions: the Broucke–Henon–Hadjidemetriou family. In this family the three objects all have the same mass and can exhibit both retrograde and direct forms. In some of Broucke's solutions two of the bodies follow the same path.
In 1993, a zero angular momentum solution with three equal masses moving around a figure-eight shape was discovered numerically by physicist Cris Moore at the Santa Fe Institute. Its formal existence was later proved in 2000 by mathematicians Alain Chenciner and Richard Montgomery. The solution has been shown numerically to be stable for small perturbations of the mass and orbital parameters, which makes it possible that such orbits could be observed in the physical universe. However, it has been argued that this occurrence is unlikely since the domain of stability is small. For instance, the probability of a binary–binary scattering event[clarification needed] resulting in a figure-8 orbit has been estimated to be a small fraction of 1%.
In 2013, physicists Milovan Šuvakov and Veljko Dmitrašinović at the Institute of Physics in Belgrade discovered 13 new families of solutions for the equal-mass zero-angular-momentum three-body problem.
In 2015, physicist Ana Hudomal discovered 14 new families of solutions for the equal-mass zero-angular-momentum three-body problem.
In 2017, researchers Xiaoming Li and Shijun Liao found 669 new periodic orbits of the equal-mass zero-angular-momentum three-body problem. This was followed in 2018 by an additional 1223 new solutions for a zero-angular-momentum system of unequal masses.
In 2018, Li and Liao reported 234 solutions to the unequal-mass "free-fall" three body problem. The free fall formulation of the three body problem starts with all three bodies at rest. Because of this, the masses in a free-fall configuration do not orbit in a closed "loop", but travel forwards and backwards along an open "track".
Using a computer, the problem may be solved to arbitrarily high precision using numerical integration although high precision requires a large amount of CPU time. Using the theory of random walks, the probability of different outcomes may be computed.
The gravitational problem of three bodies in its traditional sense dates in substance from 1687, when Isaac Newton published his Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica. In Proposition 66 of Book 1 of the Principia, and its 22 Corollaries, Newton took the first steps in the definition and study of the problem of the movements of three massive bodies subject to their mutually perturbing gravitational attractions. In Propositions 25 to 35 of Book 3, Newton also took the first steps in applying his results of Proposition 66 to the lunar theory, the motion of the Moon under the gravitational influence of Earth and the Sun.
The physical problem was addressed by Amerigo Vespucci and subsequently by Galileo Galilei. In 1499, Vespucci used knowledge of the position of the Moon to determine his position in Brazil. It became of technical importance in the 1720s, as an accurate solution would be applicable to navigation, specifically for the determination of longitude at sea, solved in practice by John Harrison's invention of the marine chronometer. However the accuracy of the lunar theory was low, due to the perturbing effect of the Sun and planets on the motion of the Moon around Earth.
Jean le Rond d'Alembert and Alexis Clairaut, who developed a longstanding rivalry, both attempted to analyze the problem in some degree of generality; they submitted their competing first analyses to the Académie Royale des Sciences in 1747. It was in connection with their research, in Paris during the 1740s, that the name "three-body problem" (French: Problème des trois Corps) began to be commonly used. An account published in 1761 by Jean le Rond d'Alembert indicates that the name was first used in 1747.
The term "three-body problem" is sometimes used in the more general sense to refer to any physical problem involving the interaction of three bodies.
A quantum-mechanical analogue of the gravitational three-body problem in classical mechanics is the helium atom, in which a helium nucleus and two electrons interact according to the inverse-square Coulomb interaction. Like the gravitational three-body problem, the helium atom cannot be solved exactly.
In both classical and quantum mechanics, however, there exist nontrivial interaction laws besides the inverse-square force which do lead to exact analytic three-body solutions. One such model consists of a combination of harmonic attraction and a repulsive inverse-cube force. This model is considered nontrivial since it is associated with a set of nonlinear differential equations containing singularities (compared with, e.g., harmonic interactions alone, which lead to an easily solved system of linear differential equations). In these two respects it is analogous to (insoluble) models having Coulomb interactions, and as a result has been suggested as a tool for intuitively understanding physical systems like the helium atom.
The gravitational three-body problem has also been studied using general relativity. Physically, a relativistic treatment becomes necessary in systems with very strong gravitational fields, such as near the event horizon of a black hole. However, the relativistic problem is considerably more difficult than in Newtonian mechanics, and sophisticated numerical techniques are required. Even the full two-body problem (i.e. for arbitrary ratio of masses) does not have a rigorous analytic solution in general relativity.
The three-body problem is a special case of the n-body problem, which describes how n objects move under one of the physical forces, such as gravity. These problems have a global analytical solution in the form of a convergent power series, as was proven by Karl F. Sundman for n = 3 and by Qiudong Wang for n > 3 (see n-body problem for details). However, the Sundman and Wang series converge so slowly that they are useless for practical purposes; therefore, it is currently necessary to approximate solutions by numerical analysis in the form of numerical integration or, for some cases, classical trigonometric series approximations (see n-body simulation). Atomic systems, e.g. atoms, ions, and molecules, can be treated in terms of the quantum n-body problem. Among classical physical systems, the n-body problem usually refers to a galaxy or to a cluster of galaxies; planetary systems, such as stars, planets, and their satellites, can also be treated as n-body systems. Some applications are conveniently treated by perturbation theory, in which the system is considered as a two-body problem plus additional forces causing deviations from a hypothetical unperturbed two-body trajectory.
In the classic 1951 science-fiction film The Day the Earth Stood Still, the alien Klaatu, using the pseudonym Mr. Carpenter, makes some annotations to equations on Prof. Barnhardt's blackboard. Those equations are an accurate description of a particular form of the three-body problem.