




The Roche limit, sometimes referred to as the Roche radius, is the distance within which a celestial body held together only by its own gravity will disintegrate due to a second celestial body's tidal forces exceeding the first body's gravitational selfattraction. Inside the Roche limit, orbiting material will tend to disperse and form rings, while outside the limit, material will tend to coalesce. The term is named after Édouard Roche, the French astronomer who first calculated this theoretical limit in 1848.
Typically, the Roche limit applies to a satellite disintegrating due to tidal forces induced by its primary, the body about which it orbits. Some real satellites, both natural and artificial, can orbit within their Roche limits because they are held together by forces other than gravitation. Jupiter's moon Metis and Saturn's moon Pan are examples of such satellites, which hold together because of their tensile strength. In extreme cases, objects resting on the surface of such a satellite could actually be lifted away by tidal forces. A weaker satellite, such as a comet, could be broken up when it passes within its Roche limit.
Since tidal forces overwhelm gravity within the Roche limit, no large satellite can coalesce out of smaller particles within that limit. Indeed, almost all known planetary rings are located within their Roche limit (Saturn's ERing being a notable exception). They could either be remnants from the planet's protoplanetary accretion disc that failed to coalesce into moonlets, or conversely have formed when a moon passed within its Roche limit and broke apart.
(Note that the Roche limit should not be confused with the concept of the Roche lobe or Roche sphere, which are also named after Édouard Roche. The Roche lobe describes the limits at which an object which is in orbit around two other objects will be captured by one or the other. The Roche sphere approximates the gravitational sphere of influence of one astronomical body in the face of perturbations from another heavier body around which it orbits.)
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The Roche limit depends on the rigidity of the satellite. At one extreme, a completely rigid satellite will maintain its shape until tidal forces break it apart. At the other extreme, a highly fluid satellite gradually deforms leading to increased tidal forces, causing the satellite to elongate, further compounding the tidal forces and causing it to break apart more readily. Most real satellites are somewhere between these two extremes, with internal friction, viscosity, and tensile strength rendering the satellite neither perfectly rigid nor perfectly fluid.
To calculate the rigid body Roche limit for a spherical satellite, the cause of the rigidity is neglected but the body is assumed to maintain its spherical shape while being held together only by its own selfgravity. Other effects are also neglected, such as tidal deformation of the primary, rotation of the satellite, and its irregular shape. These somewhat unrealistic assumptions greatly simplify the Roche limit calculation.
The Roche limit, d, for a rigid spherical satellite orbiting a spherical primary is:
where R is the radius of the primary, ρ_{M} is the density of the primary, and ρ_{m} is the density of the satellite.
Notice that if the satellite is more than twice as dense as the primary (as can easily be the case for a rocky moon orbiting a gas giant) then the Roche limit will be inside the primary and hence not relevant.
In order to determine the Roche limit, we consider a small mass u on the surface of the satellite closest to the primary. There are two forces on this mass u: the gravitational pull towards the satellite and the gravitational pull towards the primary. Since the satellite is already in orbital free fall around the primary, the tidal force is the only relevant term of the gravitational attraction of the primary.
The gravitational pull F_{G} on the mass u towards the satellite with mass m and radius r can be expressed according to Newton's law of gravitation.
The tidal force F_{T} on the mass u towards the primary with radius R and a distance d between the centers of the two bodies can be expressed as:
The Roche limit is reached when the gravitational pull and the tidal force cancel each other out.
or
Which quickly gives the Roche limit, d, as:
However, we don't really want the radius of the satellite to appear in the expression for the limit, so we rewrite this in terms of densities.
For a sphere the mass M can be written as:
And likewise:
Substituting for the masses in the equation for the Roche limit, and cancelling out 4π / 3 gives:
which can be simplified to the Roche limit:
A more accurate approach for calculating the Roche Limit takes the deformation of the satellite into account. An extreme example would be a tidally locked liquid satellite orbiting a planet, where any force acting upon the satellite would deform it (into a prolate spheroid).
The calculation is complex and its result cannot be represented as an algebraic formula. The Roche Limit is given by
The numerical factor is calculated with the aid of a computer. Historically, Roche himself derived a similar formula with the numerical factor 2.44.
The fluid solution is appropriate for bodies that are only loosely held together, such as a comet. For instance, comet ShoemakerLevy 9's decaying orbit around Jupiter passed within its Roche limit in July 1992, causing it to fragment into a number of smaller pieces. On its next approach in 1994 the fragments crashed into the planet. ShoemakerLevy 9 was first observed in 1993, but its orbit indicated that it had been captured by Jupiter a few decades prior. [1]
As the fluid satellite case is more delicate than the rigid one, the satellite is described with some simplifying assumptions. First, assume the object consists of incompressible fluid that has constant density ρ_{m} and volume V that do not depend on external or internal forces.
Second, assume the satellite moves in a circular orbit and it remains in synchronous rotation. This means that the angular speed ω at which it rotates around its center of mass is the same as the angular speed at which it moves around the overall system barycenter.
The angular speed ω is given by Kepler's third law:
The synchronous rotation implies that the liquid does not move and the problem can be regarded as a static one. Therefore, the viscosity and friction of the liquid in this model do not play a role, since these quantities would play a role only for a moving fluid.
Given these assumptions, the following forces should be taken into account:
Since all of these forces are conservative, they can be expressed by means of a potential. Moreover, the surface of the satellite is an equipotential one. Otherwise, the differences of potential would give rise to forces and movement of some parts of the liquid at the surface, which contradicts the static model assumption. Given the distance from the main body, our problem is to determine the form of the surface that satisfies the equipotential condition.
As the orbit has been assumed circular, we know that the total gravitational force and centrifugal force acting on the main body cancel. Therefore, the force that affects the particles of the liquid is the tidal force, which depends on the position with respect to the center of mass (already considered in the rigid model). For small bodies, the distance of the liquid particles from the center of the body is small in relation to the distance d to the main body. Thus the tidal force can be linearized, resulting in the same formula for F_{T} as given above. While this force in the rigid model depends only on the radius r of the satellite, in the fluid case we need to consider all the points on the surface and the tidal force depends on the distance Δd from the center of mass to a given particle projected on the line joining the satellite and the main body. We call Δd the radial distance (see the picture). Since the tidal force is linear in Δd, the related potential is proportional to the square of the variable and for we have
We want to determine the shape of the satellite for which the sum of the selfgravitation potential and V_{T} is constant on the surface of the body. In general, such a problem is very difficult to solve, but in this particular case, it can be solved by a skillful guess due to the square dependence of the tidal potential on the radial distance Δd
Since the potential V_{T} changes only in one direction (i.e. the direction to the main body), the satellite can be expected to take an axially symmetric form. More precisely, we may assume that it takes a form of a solid of revolution. The selfpotential on the surface of such a solid of revolution can only depend on the radial distance to the center of mass. Indeed, the intersection of the satellite and a plane perpendicular to the line joining the bodies is a disc whose boundary by our assumptions is a circle of constant potential. Should the difference between the selfgravitation potential and V_{T} be constant, both potentials must depend in the same way on Δd. In other words, the selfpotential has to be proportional to the square of Δd. Then it can be shown that the equipotential solution is an ellipsoid of revolution. Given a constant density and volume the selfpotential of such body depends only on the eccentricity ε of the ellipsoid:
where is the constant selfpotential on the intersection of the circular edge of the body and the central symmetry plane given by the equation Δd=0.
The dimensionless function f is to be determined from the accurate solution for the potential of the ellipsoid
and, surprisingly enough, does not depend on the volume of the satellite.
Although the explicit form of the function f looks complicated, it is clear that we may and do choose the value of ε so that the potential V_{T} is equal to V_{S} plus a constant independent of the variable Δd. By inspection, this occurs when
This equation can easily be solved numerically. The graph indicates that there are two solutions and thus the smaller one represents the stable equilibrium form (the ellipsoid with the smaller eccentricity). This solution determines the (eccentricity of) the tidal ellipsoid as a function of the distance to the main body. The derivative of the function f has a zero where the maximal eccentricity is attained. This corresponds to the Roche limit.
More precisely, the Roche limit is determined by the fact that the function f, which can be regarded as a (nonlinear) measure of the force squeezing the ellipsoid towards a spherical shape, is bounded so that there is an eccentricity at which this contracting force becomes maximal. Since the tidal force increases when the satellite approaches the main body, it is clear that there is a critical distance at which the ellipsoid is torn up.
The maximal eccentricity can be calculated numerically as the zero of the derivative of f' (see the diagram). One obtains
which corresponds to the ratio of the ellipsoid axes 1:1.95. Inserting this into the formula for the function f one can determine the minimal distance at which the ellipsoid exists. This is the Roche limit,
The table below shows the mean density and the equatorial radius for selected objects in our solar system.
Primary  Density (kg/m^{3})  Radius (m) 

Sun  1408  696,000,000 
Jupiter  1326  71,492,000 
Earth  5513  6,378,137 
Moon  3346  1,738,100 
Saturn  687.3  60,268,000 
Uranus  1318  25,559,000 
Neptune  1638  24,764,000 
Using these data, the Roche Limits for rigid and fluid bodies can easily be calculated. The average density of comets is taken to be around 500 kg/m^{3}.
The table below gives the Roche limits expressed in metres and in primary radii. The true Roche Limit for a satellite depends on its density and rigidity.
Body  Satellite  Roche limit (rigid)  Roche limit (fluid)  

Distance (km)  R  Distance (km)  R  
Earth  Moon  9,496  1.49  18,261  2.86 
Earth  average Comet  17,880  2.80  34,390  5.39 
Sun  Earth  554,400  0.80  1,066,300  1.53 
Sun  Jupiter  890,700  1.28  1,713,000  2.46 
Sun  Moon  655,300  0.94  1,260,300  1.81 
Sun  average Comet  1,234,000  1.78  2,374,000  3.42 
If the primary is less than half as dense as the satellite, the rigidbody Roche Limit is less than the primary's radius, and the two bodies may collide before the Roche limit is reached.
How close are the solar system's moons to their Roche limits? The table below gives each inner satellite's orbital radius divided by its own Roche radius. Both rigid and fluid body calculations are given. Note Pan and Naiad in particular, which may be quite close to their actual breakup points.
In practice, the densities of most of the inner satellites of giant planets are not known. In these cases (shown in italics), likely values have been assumed, but their actual Roche limit can vary from the value shown.
Primary  Satellite  Orbital Radius vs. Roche limit  

(rigid)  (fluid)  
Sun  Mercury  104:1  54:1 
Earth  Moon  41:1  21:1 
Mars  Phobos  172%  89% 
Deimos  451%  234%  
Jupiter  Metis  ~186%  ~94% 
Adrastea  ~188%  ~95%  
Amalthea  175%  88%  
Thebe  254%  128%  
Saturn  Pan  142%  70% 
Atlas  156%  78%  
Prometheus  162%  80%  
Pandora  167%  83%  
Epimetheus  200%  99%  
Janus  195%  97%  
Uranus  Cordelia  ~154%  ~79% 
Ophelia  ~166%  ~86%  
Bianca  ~183%  ~94%  
Cressida  ~191%  ~98%  
Desdemona  ~194%  ~100%  
Juliet  ~199%  ~102%  
Neptune  Naiad  ~139%  ~72% 
Thalassa  ~145%  ~75%  
Despina  ~152%  ~78%  
Galatea  153%  79%  
Larissa  ~218%  ~113%  
Pluto  Charon  12.5:1  6.5:1 