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Retrograde and prograde motion

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Title: Retrograde and prograde motion  
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Subject: Moons of Neptune, List of Latin words with English derivatives, Rings of Chariklo, Wonders of the Solar System, Apparent retrograde motion
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Retrograde and prograde motion

Retrograde orbit: the satellite (red) orbits in the direction opposite to the rotation of its primary (blue/black)

Retrograde motion is motion in the direction opposite to the movement of something else and the contrary of direct or prograde motion. This motion can be the orbit of one body about another body or about some other point, or the rotation of a single body about its axis, or other phenomena such as precession or nutation of the axis. In reference to celestial systems, retrograde motion usually means motion which is contrary to the rotation of the primary, that is, the object which forms the system's hub.

In the Solar System, all of the planets and most of the other objects that orbit the Sun, with the exception of many comets, do so in the "prograde" direction, i.e. the same sense as the rotation of the Sun. Also the rotations of most planets are prograde, with the exceptions of Venus and Uranus, which have retrograde rotations. Most satellites of planets revolve around their planets in the prograde sense. (In the case of the satellites of Uranus, this means they revolve in the same sense as Uranus's rotation, which is retrograde relative to the Sun.) There are some satellites which orbit in the retrograde sense, but these are generally small and distant from their planets, except for Neptune's satellite Triton, which is large and close. It is thought that these retrograde satellites, including Triton, are bodies which have been captured into orbit around their planets, having been formed elsewhere.

Formation of celestial systems

When a galaxy or a planetary system forms, its material takes the shape of a disk. Most of the material orbits and rotates in one direction. This uniformity of motion is due to the collapse of a gas cloud.[1] The nature of the collapse is explained by the principle called conservation of angular momentum. In 2010 the discovery of several hot Jupiters with backward orbits called into question the theories about the formation of planetary systems.[2] This can be explained by noting that stars and their planets do not form in isolation but in star clusters which contain molecular clouds and when a protoplanetary disk collides with or steals material from a cloud this can result in retrograde motion of a disk and the resulting planets.[3][4]

Orbital parameters


A celestial object's inclination indicates whether the object's orbit is prograde or retrograde. The inclination of a celestial object is the angle between its orbital plane and another reference frame such as the equatorial plane of the object's primary. In the Solar System, inclination of the planets is measured from the ecliptic plane, which is the plane of Earth's orbit around the Sun.[5] The inclination of moons is measured from the equator of the planet they orbit. An object with an inclination between 0 and 90 degrees is orbiting or revolving in the same direction as the primary is rotating. An object with an inclination of exactly 90 degrees has a perpendicular orbit which is neither prograde nor retrograde. An object with an inclination between 90 degrees and 180 degrees is in a retrograde orbit.

Axial tilt

A celestial object's axial tilt indicates whether the object's rotation is prograde or retrograde. Axial tilt is the angle between an object's rotation axis and a line perpendicular to its orbital plane passing through the object's centre. An object with an axial tilt up to 90 degrees is rotating in the same direction as its primary. An object with an axial tilt of exactly 90 degrees has a perpendicular rotation which is neither prograde nor retrograde. An object with an axial tilt between 90 degrees and 180 degrees is rotating in the opposite direction to its orbital direction.


All eight planets in the Solar System orbit the Sun in the direction that the Sun is rotating, which is counterclockwise when viewed from above the Sun's north pole. Six of the planets also rotate about their axis in this same direction. The exceptions—the planets with retrograde rotation—are Venus and Uranus. Venus's axial tilt is 177 degrees, which means it is spinning almost exactly in the opposite direction to its orbit. Uranus has an axial tilt of 97.77 degrees, so its axis of rotation is approximately parallel with the plane of the Solar System. The reason for Uranus's unusual axial tilt is not known with certainty, but the usual speculation is that during the formation of the Solar System, an Earth-sized protoplanet collided with Uranus, causing the skewed orientation.[6]

It is unlikely that Venus was formed with its present slow retrograde rotation which takes 243 days to rotate. Venus probably began with a fast prograde rotation with a period of several hours much like most of the planets in the solar system. Venus is close enough to the Sun to experience significant gravitational tidal dissipation, and also has a thick enough atmosphere to create thermally driven atmospheric tides which create a retrograde torque. Venus' present slow retrograde rotation is in equilibrium balance between gravitational tides trying to tidally lock Venus to the Sun and atmospheric tides trying to spin-up Venus in a retrograde direction. In addition to maintaining this present day equilibrium, tides are also sufficient to account for evolution of Venus's rotation from a primordial fast prograde direction to its present-day slow retrograde rotation.[7] In the past various other alternative hypotheses have been proposed to explain Venus' retrograde rotation, such as collisions or it having originally formed that way. Mercury is closer to the Sun than Venus but Mercury is not tidally locked because it has entered a spin-orbit resonance due to the eccentricity of its orbit. The rotation of Earth and Mars is also affected by tidal forces with the Sun but they haven't reached an equilibrium state like Mercury and Venus because they are further out from the Sun where tidal forces are weaker. The gas giants of the solar system are too massive and too far from the Sun to have their rotations slowed down by tidal forces.[7]

Dwarf planets

All known dwarf planets and dwarf planet candidates have prograde orbits around the Sun, but some have retrograde rotation. Pluto has retrograde rotation; its axial tilt is approximately 120 degrees.[8] Pluto and its moon Charon are both tidally locked to each other. It is suspected that the Plutonian satellite system was created by a massive collision.[9][10]

Earth's atmosphere

Retrograde motion, or retrogression, within the Earth's atmosphere refers to weather systems which move from east to west through the Westerlies or from west to east through the Trade wind easterlies.

Moons and rings

The orange moon is orbiting in the opposite direction.

If formed in the gravity-field of a planet as the planet is forming, a moon will orbit the planet in the same direction as the planet is rotating and is a regular moon. If an object is formed elsewhere and later captured into orbit by a planet's gravity, it can be captured into a retrograde or prograde orbit depending on whether it first approaches the side of the planet that is rotating towards or away from it. This is an irregular moon.[11]

In the Solar System, many of the asteroid-sized moons have retrograde orbits, whereas all the large moons except Triton (the largest of Neptune's moons) have prograde orbits.[12] The particles in Saturn's Phoebe ring are thought to have a retrograde orbit because they originate from the irregular moon Phoebe.

All retrograde satellites experience tidal deceleration to some degree. The only satellite in the Solar System for which this effect is non-negligible is Neptune's moon Triton. All the other retrograde satellites are on distant orbits and tidal forces between them and the planet are negligible.

Within the Hill sphere, the region of stability for retrograde orbits at a large distance from the primary is larger than that for prograde orbits. This has been suggested as an explanation for the preponderance of retrograde moons around Jupiter. Because Saturn has a more even mix of retrograde/prograde moons, however, the underlying causes appear to be more complex.[13]

With the exception of Hyperion all the known regular planetary natural satellites in the Solar System are tidally locked to their host planet, so they have zero rotation relative to their host planet, but have prograde rotation relative to the Sun because they have prograde orbits around their host planet.

If there is a collision, material could be ejected in any direction and coalesce into either prograde or retrograde moons which may be the case for the moons of dwarf planet Haumea although Haumea's rotation direction is not known.[14]

Small solar system bodies


Asteroids usually have a prograde orbit around the Sun. Only a few dozen asteroids in retrograde orbits are known.

Some asteroids with retrograde orbits may be burnt-out comets,[15] but some may acquire their retrograde orbit due to gravitational interactions with Jupiter.[16]

Due to their small size and their large distance from Earth it is difficult to telescopically analyse the rotation of most asteroids. As of 2012, data is available for less than 200 asteroids and the different methods of determining the orientation of poles often result in large discrepancies.[17] The asteroid spin vector catalog at Poznan Observatory[18] avoids use of the phrases "retrograde rotation" or "prograde rotation" as it depends which reference plane is meant and asteroid coordinates are usually given with respect to the ecliptic plane rather than the asteroid's orbital plane.[19]

Asteroids with satellites, also known as binary asteroids, make up about 15% of all asteroids less than 10 km in diameter in the main belt and near-Earth population and most are thought to be formed by the YORP effect causing an asteroid to spin so fast that it breaks up.[20] As of 2012, and where the rotation is known, all satellites of asteroids orbit the asteroid in the same direction as the asteroid is rotating.[21]

Most known objects that are in orbital resonance are orbiting in the same direction as the objects they are in resonance with, however a few retrograde asteroids have been found in resonance with Jupiter and Saturn.[22]


Comets from the Oort cloud are much more likely than asteroids to be retrograde.[15] Halley's Comet has a retrograde orbit around the Sun.[23]

Kuiper belt

Most Kuiper belt objects have prograde orbits around the Sun. The first Kuiper belt object discovered to have a retrograde orbit is 2008 KV42.[24]


Meteoroids in a retrograde orbit around the Sun hit the Earth with a faster relative speed than prograde meteoroids and tend to burn-up in the atmosphere and are more likely to hit the side of the Earth facing away from the Sun (i.e. at night-time) whereas the prograde meteoroids have slower closing speeds and more often land as meteorites and tend to hit the sun-facing side of the Earth. Most meteoroids are prograde.[25]

The Sun

The Sun's motion about the centre of mass of the Solar System is complicated by perturbations from the planets. Every few hundred years this motion switches between prograde and retrograde.[26]


Stars and planetary systems tend to be born in star clusters rather than forming in isolation, and protoplanetary disks can collide with or steal material from molecular clouds within the cluster and this can lead to disks and their resulting planets having inclined or retrograde orbits around their stars.[3][4] Retrograde motion may also result from gravitational interactions with other celestial bodies in the same system (See Kozai mechanism.) or a near-collision with another planet,[27] or it may be that the star itself flipped over early in their system's formation due to interactions between the star's magnetic field and the planet-forming disk.[28][29]

The accretion disk of the protostar IRAS 16293-2422 has parts rotating in opposite directions, the first time a counterrotating accretion disk has been found and means that when planets form, the inner planets will orbit in the opposite direction to the outer planets.[30]

WASP-17b was the first exoplanet that was discovered to be orbiting its star opposite to the direction the star is rotating.[31] A second such planet was announced just a day later: HAT-P-7b.[32]

In one study more than half of all the known hot Jupiters had orbits that were misaligned with the rotation axis of their parent stars, with six having backwards orbits.[2]

The last few giant impacts during planetary formation tend to be the main determiner of a terrestrial planet's rotation rate. During the giant impact stage, the thickness of a protoplanetary disk is far larger than the size of planetary embryos so collisions are equally likely to come from any direction in three-dimensions. This results in the axial tilt of accreted planets ranging from 0 to 180 degrees with any direction as likely as any other with both prograde and retrograde spins equally probable. Therefore prograde spin with small axial tilt, common for the solar system's terrestrial planets except for Venus, is not common for terrestrial planets in general. [33]


The pattern of stars appears fixed in the sky, but that is only because they are so far away that their motion isn't visible to the naked eye; actually, they are orbiting the centre of the galaxy. Stars with a retrograde orbit are more likely to be found in the galactic halo than in the galactic disk. The Milky Way's outer halo has many globular clusters with a retrograde orbit[34] and with a retrograde or zero rotation.[35] The halo consists of two distinct components. The stars in the inner halo mostly have prograde orbits around the galaxy, whereas stars in the outer halo typically have retrograde orbits.[36]

The nearby Kapteyn's Star is thought to have ended up with its high-velocity retrograde orbit around the galaxy as a result of being ripped from a dwarf galaxy that merged with the Milky Way.[37]


Satellite galaxies

Close-flybys and mergers of galaxies within galaxy clusters can pull material out of galaxies and create small satellite galaxies in either prograde or retrograde orbits around larger galaxies.[38]

A galaxy called Complex H, which was orbiting the Milky Way in a retrograde direction relative to the Milky Way's rotation, is colliding with the Milky Way.[39][40]

Counter-rotating bulges

NGC 7331 is an example of a galaxy which has a bulge that is rotating in the opposite direction to the rest of the disk, probably as a result of infalling material.[41]

Central black holes

The center of a spiral galaxy contains at least one supermassive black hole.[42] A retrograde black hole – one whose spin is opposite to that of its disk – spews jets much more powerful than those of a prograde black hole, which may have no jet at all. Scientists have produced a theoretical framework for the formation and evolution of retrograde black holes based on the gap between the inner edge of an accretion disk and the black hole.[43][44]

See also


  1. ^ Grossman, Lisa (13 August 2008). "Planet found orbiting its star backwards for first time". NewScientist. Retrieved 10 October 2009. 
  2. ^ a b Turning planetary theory upside down
  3. ^ a b Stars that steal give birth to backwards planets, New Scientist, 23 August 2011
  4. ^ a b A natural formation scenario for misaligned and short-period eccentric extrasolar planets, Ingo Thies, Pavel Kroupa, Simon P. Goodwin, Dimitris Stamatellos, Anthony P. Whitworth, 11 Jul 2011
  5. ^ McBride, Neil; Bland, Philip A.; Gilmour, Iain (2004). An Introduction to the Solar System. Cambridge University Press. p. 248.  
  6. ^ Bergstralh, Jay T.; Miner, Ellis; Matthews, Mildred (1991). Uranus. pp. 485–486.  
  7. ^ a b Tidal Evolution of Exoplanets, Alexandre C. M. Correia, Jacques Laskar, Chapter in Exoplanets, ed. S. Seager, published by University of Arizona Press, 2010
  8. ^
  9. ^ Canup, R. M. (2005-01-08). "A Giant Impact Origin of Pluto-Charon".  
  10. ^  
  11. ^ Encyclopedia of the solar system. Academic Press. 2007. 
  12. ^ Mason, John (22 July 1989). "Science: Neptune's new moon baffles the astronomers". NewScientist. Retrieved 10 October 2009. 
  13. ^ Chaos-assisted capture of irregular moons, Sergey A. Astakhov, Andrew D. Burbanks, Stephen Wiggins & David Farrelly, NATURE |VOL 423 | 15 MAY 2003
  14. ^ On the Dynamics and Origin of Haumea's Moons, Matija Ćuk, Darin Ragozzine, David Nesvorný, 12 aug 2013
  15. ^ a b Hecht, Jeff (1 May 2009). "Nearby asteroid found orbiting Sun backwards". NewScientist. Retrieved 10 October 2009. 
  16. ^ PRODUCTION OF NEAR-EARTH ASTEROIDS ON RETROGRADE ORBITS, S. Greenstreet, B. Gladman, H. Ngo, M. Granvik, and S. Larson, The Astrophysical Journal Letters, 749:L39 (5pp), 2012 April 20
  17. ^ Spin vectors of asteroids: Updated statistical properties and open problems, Paolo Paolicchia, Agnieszka Kryszczyńskab, Planetary and Space Science, Volume 73, Issue 1, December 2012, Pages 70–74
  18. ^ Physical studies of asteroids at Poznan Observatory
  20. ^ Rotational breakup as the origin of small binary asteroids, Kevin J. Walsh, Derek C. Richardson & Patrick Michel, Nature, Vol 454 10 July 2008
  21. ^ Asteroids with satellites: Analysis of observational data, N. M. Gaftonyuk, N. N. Gorkavyi, Solar System Research May 2013, Volume 47, Issue 3, pp 196-202
  22. ^ Namouni, M.H.M.; F. Namouni (1970). "Asteroids in retrograde resonance with Jupiter and Saturn".  
  23. ^ Halley's Comet
  24. ^ Hecht, Jeff (5 September 2008). "Distant object found orbiting Sun backwards". NewScientist. Retrieved 10 October 2009. 
  25. ^ Meteorites: A Journey Through Space and Time, Alex Bevan, John De Laeter, UNSW Press, 2002 ISBN 9780868404905
  26. ^ Javaraiah, J. (12 July 2005). "Sun's retrograde motion and violation of even-odd cycle rule in sunspot activity". Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society 362 (2005): 1311–1318.  
  27. ^ Grossman, Lisa (13 August 2009). "Planet found orbiting its star backwards for first time". NewScientist. Retrieved 7 September 2010. 
  28. ^ Tilting stars may explain backwards planets, New Scientist, 01 September 2010, Magazine issue 2776.
  29. ^ Evolution of Spin Direction of Accreting Magnetic Protostars and Spin-Orbit Misalignment in Exoplanetary Systems, Dong Lai, Francois Foucart, Douglas N.C. Lin
  30. ^ Still-Forming Solar System May Have Planets Orbiting Star in Opposite Directions, Astronomers Say, National Radio Astronomy Observatory, February 13, 2006
  31. ^ D. R. Anderson et al. (2009). "WASP-17b: an ultra-low density planet in a probable retrograde orbit". arXiv:0908.1553 [astro-ph.EP].
  32. ^ Second backwards planet found, a day after the first, New Scientist, 13 August 2009
  33. ^ Terrestrial Planet Formation at Home and Abroad, Sean N. Raymond, Eiichiro Kokubo, Alessandro Morbidelli, Ryuji Morishima, Kevin J. Walsh, (Submitted on 5 Dec 2013 (v1), last revised 28 Jan 2014 (this version, v3))
  34. ^ Kravtsov, V. V. (2001). "Globular clusters and dwarf spheroidal galaxies of the outer galactic halo: On the putative scenario of their formation". Astronomical and Astrophysical Transactions 20 (1): 89–92.  
  35. ^ Kravtsov, Valery V. (2002). "Second parameter globulars and dwarf spheroidals around the Local Group massive galaxies: What can they evidence?". Astronomy & Astrophysics 396: 117–123.  
  36. ^ Daniela Carollo, Timothy C. Beers, Young Sun Lee, Masashi Chiba, John E. Norris, Ronald Wilhelm, Thirupathi Sivarani, Brian Marsteller, Jeffrey A. Munn, Coryn A. L. Bailer-Jones, Paola Re Fiorentin, Donald G. York (13 December 2007). "Two stellar components in the halo of the Milky Way". Nature 450 (7172): 1020–5.  
  37. ^
  38. ^ Making Counter-Orbiting Tidal Debris - The Origin of the Milky Way Disc of Satellites, M. S. Pawlowski, P. Kroupa, and K. S. de Boer
  39. ^ Cain, Fraser (22 May 2003). "Galaxy Orbiting Milky Way in the Wrong Direction". Universe Today. Retrieved 13 October 2009. 
  40. ^ Lockman, Felix J. (2003). "High-velocity cloud Complex H: a satellite of the Milky Way in a retrograde orbit?". The Astrophysical Journal Letters 591 (1): L33–L36.  
  41. ^ Prada, F.; C. Gutierrez; R. F. Peletier; C. D. McKeith (14 March 1996). "A Counter-rotating Bulge in the Sb Galaxy NGC 7331". arXiv:astro-ph/9602142 [astro-ph].
  42. ^ D. Merritt and M. Milosavljevic (2005). "Massive Black Hole Binary Evolution."
  43. ^ "Some black holes make stronger jets of gas". 1 June 2010. Retrieved 1 June 2010. 
  44. ^ Atkinson, Nancy (1 June 2010). "What's more powerful than a supermassive black hole? A supermassive black hole that spins backwards.". The Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved 1 June 2010. 

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