Flat Planes and the Structures in the Universe

Image Credit: The Air Force Collaboratory

When we look out into the universe, we find objects tend to orient themselves in nice, flat planes. For those who don’t know the physical processes behind this phenomena, this seems extremely strange considering the three-dimensional nature of space (special dimensions that is).

Image Credit: University of Hawaii

Image Credit: University of Hawaii

Before I start, you should be aware that solar systems and galaxies aren’t completely flat. Yes, the bulk of objects in galaxies and solar systems orbit on the same general plane as one another, but then you’ll have objects like Pluto. Pluto has an orbital inclination of about 17 degrees relative to the plane of the solar system. On the galactic level, most galactic nuclei have a cloud of globular clusters in orbit around them. Most of the time, this cloud orbits more as a sphere rather than a disk.

OK, on to the actual question. Why do solar systems and galaxies favor relatively flat orbital planes? This mainly has to deal with angular momentum. “In physics, angular momentum (or rotational momentum) is a vector quantity that represents the product of a body’s rotational inertia and rotational velocity about a particular axis.”

From here, I’ll pull some small-scale examples of angular momentum. Take a gyroscope as an example. You remember those from your childhood. Wrap a string around it’s center access, pull the string as hard as you can to get the center spinning as fast as possible, then enjoy as it defies gravity. Force, torque, momentum, and angular momentum combine to provide this elegant balance. Swinging a bucket full of water around (in a circle) is another example of angular momentum at work. Another such example is watching a figure skater. In this case, when a skater turns, they can more noticeably alter the values for the forces at work by pulling in to a tight ball (where they will spin very fast) or stretching out long (causing them to spin more slowly).

Image Credit: Jacqueline Ramseyer

Image Credit: Jacqueline Ramseyer

In fact, the same process can be seen in just about any rotating system of particles. Take pizza dough as an example. You know when chefs take the round ball of dough, and throw it into the air adding a flick of the wrist to add some angular momentum, then it magically lengthens into a disk (or, the dough orients around the plane on the axis of rotation). Planets do exactly the same thing. The Earth bulges out in the center due to the same processes.

Solar systems and galaxies get their angular momentum from the condensing matter that makes up the system. Use a solar system as an example. As the cloud of interstellar gas condensed to make the solar system, off-center collisions of particles added a little torque. This twisting compounded as more and more off center collisions happened and the cloud elongated in the same way pizza dough does. In exactly the same way, galaxies too were formed from collapsing interstellar gas and other galaxy collisions.

Now, if you excuse me, I think I’m going to go order some pizza.

122 thoughts on “Flat Planes and the Structures in the Universe

  1. Nicolas

    But the sun is a point not an axis, now that you mention it it’s very weird that planets rotate in a plane around the sun…

    • Alan Mindbender

      The sun is a point, the rotational point of the axis that extends to the furthest planets of our solar system, that lies within the plane that the rest of the system does. The binding gravities exerted between the masses circling a point pull them all together in the most energy efficient system possible, a rotating plane (much the way the tossed pizza takes on a flattened shape).

  2. Jose Cruz Lerma

    I’d like to think I have a touch of it but that’s thanks to the Navy, 14yrs ago. So I would say it’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder & yes, by alphabetical order, CDO. But I’m not the one writting the article.

  3. Beth Carey

    I get that the planets orbit the sun on the same orbital plane. But why, for example, are all of Jupiter’s moons in orbits not on the same orbital plane?? I would love to see an article about that too!

    • Bryant Baker

      Some are captured asteroids the only ones you would expect to be in the same orbital plane would have to directly condense from the solar nebula with jupiter or as a separate ‘planet’ and then getting captured.

  4. Russell Middleton

    Angular momentum doesn’t necessarily make things co-planer….. It’s just the most LIKELY outcome , as it’s the system where speeding crazy masses don’t slam into each other.

    • Bryant Baker

      That pseudoscience bs, I mean yes it looks like that if you were to be in a completely stationary viewing point but thats just due to how all the planets and the sun are orbiting the center of the galaxy together.

  5. Gazala Shaikh

    to make such bodies float with such precision and perfection and without any collision just proves how GReat God is .Asteroids come and go yet life continues on earth ,as does food grow and other cycles continue without any flaws

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  7. Ritu Mehta

    Sharing a dia of the same drawn during one of my lectures. Science is not just a subject its an approach to unveil the mysteries of our universe which never fail to fill us with awe of them !!

  8. Tirwin Bass

    What about the secret planet that takes 3600 years to go around the sun, is the same distance from the sun as earth at it’s closest point and orbits north to south? lol, conspiracies :P

  9. Logan Kimler

    Pluto is not on the same plane, as stated in the article.

    Albeit it would be a good counter-example along with that comet.

    Stop being butthurt about Pluto.

  10. Bert Gaffen

    Total and unadulterated HOGWASH! It APPEARS that the planets are revolving around the centre of the galaxy in a huge spiral motion, but it is the sun’s gravity that governs the planetery motion. Only because the planets are locked in orbit do they perform this eternal spiral dance. If our planets were not orbiting the sun (and they were far enough apart so that their gravity did not impact upon each other) they would orbit the galactic centre in a circular or eliptical orbit and not the spiral that we are observing

  11. Michael Flynn

    What are you blubbering about, Bert Gaffen?

    The shape of many galaxies is a flattened spiral, but the orbit of the stars and planets in the galaxy is elliptical, or nearly elliptical, with some extra sinusoidal motion thrown in. This orbital dance about the galactic center is independent of the fact that some planets or stars orbit nearby objects.

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