Precession refers to a change in the direction of the axis of a rotating object. In physics, there are two types of precession, torque-free and torque-induced, the latter being discussed here in more detail. In certain contexts, "precession" may refer to the precession that the Earth experiences, the effects of this type of precession on astronomical observation, or to the precession of orbital objects..
Even in a perfectly solid rigid body, torque-free precession will take place when it rotates around an axis in which it is non-symmetrical. This occurs because the angular momentum (L) will have to be constant in the external reference frame (because the hypothesis of torque-free), but the moment of inertia tensor (I) is non-constant in this frame because the lack of symmetry. Therefore the spin angular velocity vector () about the spin axis will have to evolve in time so that their matrix product L = I . remains constant.
The torque-free precession rate of an object with an axis of symmetry, such as a disk, spinning about an axis not aligned with that axis of symmetry can be calculated as follows:
The device depicted on the right here is gimbal mounted. From inside to outside there are three axes of rotation: the hub of the wheel, the gimbal axis and the vertical pivot.
To distinguish between the two horizontal axes, rotation around the wheel hub will be called 'rolling', and rotation around the gimbal axis will be called 'pitching.' Rotation around the pivot axis is called 'spinning'.
First, imagine that the device is spinning around the pivot axis. Then some rotation around the wheelhub is added. Imagine the gimbal axis to be locked, so that the wheel cannot pitch. The gimbal axis has sensors, that measure whether there is a torque around the gimbal axis.
In the picture, a section of the wheel has been named 'dm1'. When the rolling starts, section dm1 is at the perimeter of the spinning motion. Section dm1 has a lot of velocity and as it is forced closer to the center of rotation, it tends to move in the direction of the top-left arrow in the diagram (shown at 45o in the direction of rolling). Section dm2 of the wheel starts out at the center of rotation, and thus initially has zero velocity before the wheel is rolled. A force would be required to increase section dm2's velocity to the velocity at the perimeter of the pivot axis' plane. If that force is not provided then section dm2's inertia will make it move in the direction of the top-right arrow. Note that both arrows point in the same direction.
The same reasoning applies for the bottom half of the wheel, but there the arrows point in the opposite direction to that of the top arrows. Combined over the entire wheel, there is a torque around the gimbal axis when some rolling is added to rotation around a vertical axis.
It is important to note that the torque around the gimbal axis arises without any delay; the response is instantaneous.
In the discussion above, the setup was kept unchanging by preventing rotation around the gimbal axis. In the case of a spinning top, when the spinning top is tilting, gravity exerts a torque. Instead of rolling over, the spinning top pitches. The pitching motion reorients the spinning top with respect to the torque that is being exerted. The result is that the torque exerted by gravity elicits gyroscopic precession rather than causing the spinning top to fall to its side.
Gyroscopic precession also plays a large role in the flight controls on helicopters. Since the driving force behind helicopters is the rotor disk (which rotates), gyroscopic precession comes into play. If the rotor disk is to be tilted forward (to gain forward velocity), its rotation requires that the downward net force on the blade be applied roughly 90 degrees (depending on blade configuration) before, or when the blade is to one side of the pilot and rotating forward.
To ensure the pilot's inputs are correct, the aircraft has corrective linkages which vary the blade pitch in advance of the blade's position relative to the swashplate. Although the swashplate moves in the intuitively correct direction, the blade pitch links are arranged to transmit the pitch in advance of the blade's position.
Precession is the result of the angular velocity of rotation and the angular velocity produced by the torque. It is an angular velocity about a line which makes an angle with the permanent rotation axis, and this angle lies in a plane at right angles to the plane of the couple producing the torque. The permanent axis must turn towards this line, since the body cannot continue to rotate about any line which is not a principal axis of maximum moment of inertia; that is, the permanent axis turns in a direction at right angles to that in which the torque might be expected to turn it. If the rotating body is symmetrical and its motion unconstrained, and if the torque on the spin axis is at right angles to that axis, the axis of precession will be perpendicular to both the spin axis and torque axis.
Under these circumstances the angular velocity of precession is given by:
An informal explanation of Precession: In a classic beginning physics demonstration, the instructor stands on a swiveling platform and holds a spinning bicycle wheel at arm's length. The wheel is vertical and the instructor is standing still. The instructor then tilts the wheel toward horizontal. This causes the instructor to start spinning slowly on the platform. Bringing the wheel back to vertical and tilting it the other way makes the instructor spin the other way. Why?
Imagine the wheel as a collection of small particles. Particles want to move in a straight line. In order for them to move in a circle there must be a force accelerating the particles toward the center of the circle (acceleration is a change in speed or direction or both — in this case just direction). This force is ultimately provided by bonds between the atoms in the wheel and spokes.
What happens when the instructor turns the spinning wheel from vertical to horizontal? Consider a particle somewhere on the wheel. If the wheel weren't being tilted, it would be accelerated around the circle as always. But since the wheel is tilting, it now has to follow a new path. A change in path is an acceleration, which in turn requires force (from the instructor's hands, transmitted through the spokes to the rim). Now consider the particle opposite the first particle on the wheel. It also has to change path, but in the opposite direction. Since the forces on opposite sides are in opposite directions, the result is torque. Each pair of opposite particles on the wheel contributes to the torque that causes the instructor to turn on the platform.
Tilting the wheel the other direction produces torque in the opposite direction, slowing the instructor's spin and eventually reversing it.
The Earth goes through one complete precession cycle in a period of approximately 25,800 years, during which the positions of stars as measured in the equatorial coordinate system will slowly change; the change is actually due to the change of the coordinates. Over this cycle the Earth's north axial pole moves from where it is now, within 1° of Polaris, in a circle around the ecliptic pole, with an angular radius of about 23.5 degrees (or approximately 23 degrees 27 arcminutes ). The shift is 1 degree in 180 years, where the angle is taken from the observer, not from the center of the circle.
Discovery of the precession of the equinoxes is generally attributed to the ancient Greek astronomer Hipparchus (ca. 150 B.C.), though the difference between the sidereal and tropical years was known to Aristarchus of Samos much earlier (ca. 280 B.C.). It was later explained by Newtonian physics. The Earth has a nonspherical shape, being oblate spheroid, bulging outward at the equator. The gravitational tidal forces of the Moon and Sun apply torque as they attempt to pull the equatorial bulge into the plane of the ecliptic. The portion of the precession due to the combined action of the Sun and the Moon is called lunisolar precession.
Revolution of a planet in its orbit around the Sun is also a form of rotary motion. (In this case, the combined system of Earth and Sun is rotating.) So the axis of a planet's orbital plane will also precess over time.
The major axis of each planet's elliptical orbit also precesses within its orbital plane, partly in response to perturbations in the form of the changing gravitational forces exerted by other planets. This is called perihelion precession or apsidal precession (see apsis). Discrepancies between the observed perihelion precession rate of the planet Mercury and that predicted by classical mechanics were prominent among the forms of experimental evidence leading to the acceptance of Einstein's Theory of Relativity, which predicted the anomalies accurately.
These periodic changes of Earth's orbital parameters, combined with the precession of the equinoxes and of the inclination of the Earth's axis on its orbit, are an important part of the astronomical theory of ice ages. For precession of the lunar orbit see lunar precession.
A phenomenon analogous to apsidal precession is nodal precession (see orbital node), which affects the orientation of the orbital plane.