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Tidal Forces - Windows to the Universe

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This image shows the Earth and the moon, and the bulges produced on each side from the tides.
Click on image for full size

Tidal Forces

The force of gravity caused by an object gets weaker as you move farther away from that object. In this picture, the Earth is pulling on the Moon, and the Moon is pulling on the Earth. The Moon pulls more strongly on the side of the Earth facing the Moon than on the side facing away from the Moon. Because the gravitational force on one side of the planet is different from that on the other side, it is called a tidal force.

Because planets are not perfectly rigid, they change their shape when they are pulled this way. They get pulled out as if they are being pushed from the top and bottom (Earth also bulges at the equator all the way around because it is spinning). Thus they form two bulges on either side of the planet. These two bulges are called tides. On Earth, near the ocean, these tides can actually be seen. The ocean water rises high along the beach, twice each day.

If a body is very rigid or is not held together well, instead of getting pushed and pulled out of shape, the tidal forces can actually tear the body in half, as with comet Shoemaker-Levy 9.

Last modified September 29, 2003 by Randy Russell.

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Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA