As moons orbit planets, they get squashed by uneven gravitational forces acting on them. Does this make a moon emit gravitational waves?

  • $\begingroup$ @user438383 about the proposed edit, they DO get cyclicly squashed and "unsquashed" so I've voted to reject it. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Apr 11, 2023 at 23:40

2 Answers 2


Yes, but the effect is tiny

Tim Rias (in a comment below) calculates it to be $10^{-18}$ Watts. (see a paper about doing a similar calculation for neutron stars)

Bodies that have spherically asymmetric acceleration in a gravitational field will emit gravitational waves. Hence if a mosquito does a loop-the-loop it emits gravitational waves. In practice, the energy in such waves will be negligible.

The moon weighs more than a mosquito, and if it is squashed (in a non-spherically symmetric fashion) then the motion of mass in its gravitational field will necessarily result in some gravitational radiation.

But the energy released in such motions will be negligible, in comparison to the heating effect, and consequent blackbody electromagnetic radiation. It will also be negligible in comparison to the gravitational radiation already emitted by the Earth-moon system as a result of the orbit. The acceleration of the moon by the Earth is much greater that the acceleration of matter on the moon by tides.

We are able to detect only the most extreme gravitational waves, those which result from black hole collisions. I'd bet that we will never detect gravitational waves from any solar system object.

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    $\begingroup$ If an elderly but distinguished scientist says that something is possible, he is almost certainly right; but if he says that it is impossible, he is very probably wrong. - Arthur C. Clarke. $\endgroup$ Apr 11, 2023 at 11:38
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    $\begingroup$ Eg, "For the Earth-Sun system, this works out to be about 196 watts of power." physics.stackexchange.com/a/412990/123208 $\endgroup$
    – PM 2Ring
    Apr 11, 2023 at 12:55
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    $\begingroup$ @planetmaker Is James K an elderly but distinguished scientist? Does the quote apply to him. Anyway, from all that I have read, gravitational waves are very weak except for those produced by super energetic events. $\endgroup$ Apr 11, 2023 at 16:58
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    $\begingroup$ @M.A.Golding. Were you reading the work of elderly but distinguished scientists? $\endgroup$ Apr 11, 2023 at 19:41
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    $\begingroup$ The phrase "The moon weighs more than a mosquito" is just begging for an xkcd-style "[citation needed]". $\endgroup$
    – Spratty
    Apr 12, 2023 at 14:34

While JamesK's answer works hard and goes to great effort to emphasize that the effect is really small, so as to dismiss the effect as (humorous hat tip to Douglas Adams):

The effect is small, You just won't believe how vanishingly, sub-microscopically, mind-bogglingly small it is. I mean, you may think it's a short way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to this.

But I think we should stop and think the other way for a moment.

Space is ringing with a quadrillion-zillion-billion voices! Everything makes gravitational waves, and the distortion of space is a tapestry of reality.

It reminds me of Herman Hesse's Siddhartha_ and the sound of the river.

“Siddhartha listened. He was now completely and utterly immersed in his listening, utterly empty, utterly receptive; he felt he had now succeeded in learning how to listen. He had heard all these things often now, these many voices in the river; today it sounded new. Already he could no longer distinguish the many voices, could not distinguish the gay from the weeping, the childish from the virile; they all belonged together, the yearning laments and the wise man’s laughter, the cry of anger and the moans of the dying; they were all one, all of them interlinked and interwoven, bound together in a thousand ways. And all of this together—all the voices, all the goals, all the longing, all the suffering, all the pleasure, everything good and everything bad—all of it together was the world. All of it together was the river of occurrences, the music of life. And when Siddhartha listened attentively to this river, to this thousand-voiced song, when he listened neither for the sorrow nor for the laughter, when he did not attach his soul to any one voice and enter into it with his ego but rather heard all of them, heard the whole, the oneness—then the great song of the thousand voices consisted only of a single word: Om, perfection.”

The more sensitive we make instruments, and the wider and more diverse ranges of frequencies those future instruments are optimized for, the more we will learn about the universe!

Just to get the ball rolling:

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    $\begingroup$ +1 for the beautiful quote. Astronomy is science, philosophy and art. $\endgroup$ Apr 12, 2023 at 2:45
  • $\begingroup$ Your "space is ringing with" point suggests an analogy: There are sounds being created constantly all around the world. But except for extremely loud sounds, only nearby sounds can be heard even by extremely sensitive microphones. $\endgroup$
    – Barmar
    Apr 12, 2023 at 16:01
  • $\begingroup$ @Barmar theres a big difference between the way sound pressure in air and gravitational wave strain decrease with distance. First of all, sound pressure drops as $1/r^2$ whereas gravitational wave strain drops much more slowly as $1/r$. Second, sound has has an exponential attenuation in air, it is damped, there are losses in air - sound converts to heat. This doesn't happen with gravitational waves. Third, there are objects around - we don't always have completely unobstructed line-of-sight to sources of sound. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Apr 13, 2023 at 0:48
  • $\begingroup$ Fourth, over long distances air is "lumpy" in temperature and density and has turbulence, so sound can be scattered away from line-of-sight trajectories. Elephants have a way of avoiding some of these loss mechanisms of sound pressure level in air, they produce low-frequency noises between 1 to 20 Hertz, known as infrasounds, that help them keep in touch over distances as large as 10 kilometers. You and I can't talk over 10 kilometers, but that only our limited experience. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Apr 13, 2023 at 0:54
  • $\begingroup$ Basically, gravitational wave astronomy is still in its infancy. There are a huge amount of vibrations out there coming from modest and relatively small phenomena that are theoretically detectable if the right detection system is built. Think of how astronomy changed after optical telescopes were first invented and then grew to what they are today in number, variety and locations (including space).That same explosion in information is going to happen for gravitational waves science. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Apr 13, 2023 at 0:59

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