[Physics FAQ] - [Copyright]

Updated by Steve Carlip, 1996.
Original by Michael Weiss.

Mercury's Orbital Precession, General Relativity, and the Solar Bulge

If the Sun were not a perfect sphere, but had an equatorial bulge (i.e., was oblate), that would cause Mercury's orbit to precess.  Well, surprise: the Sun isn't a perfect sphere; it is oblate!  So how good is the agreement between Mercury's orbital precession and GR?

Clifford Will devotes a chapter to this in his 1986 book Was Einstein Right?  Putting General Relativity to the Test.  Dicke and Goldenberg claimed to have detected a much larger bulge than solar models predicted, large enough to destroy the agreement between GR and Mercury's orbit, but not large enough to permit a newtonian explanation.  Specifically, the data looks like this:

    Mercury's perihelion precession:        574 arcseconds/century
    Newtonian perturbations from
        other planets:                      531 arcseconds/century
    GR correction:                           43 arcseconds/century
    Newtonian correction from Dicke bulge:    3 arcseconds/century

So no hope for Newton, but a problem for GR if the Dicke-Goldenberg value for solar oblateness held up.  The Brans-Dicke scalar-tensor theory of gravity could handle the discrepancy, via its adjustable parameter.

Subsequent observations by other groups detected much smaller solar bulges.  But the other measurements disagreed with each other.  Here's the data, again from Will's book:

   Amount predicted by conventional   0.2 km,  0.1 ppm
   solar models
   Dicke-Goldenberg (1966)             52 km,  40 ppm
   Hill (1973)                          2 km,   1 ppm
   Hill (1982)                         10 km,   7 ppm
   Dicke (1985)                        24 km,  12 ppm

These aren't all direct measurements, and I haven't given any of the error bars, but here's Will's bottom line: "No one has been able to resolve or understand the discrepancies between all these values for solar oblateness, other than to say that the observations are difficult to make and subject to many errors."  (In case you're wondering about the Brans-Dicke theory, that ran into a bunch of other problems during the 1970s and 80s.)

But at least two important new developments have occurred since Will's book was written.

1.  A new and accurate direct measurement of Solar oblateness has been performed, using the balloon-borne Solar Disk Sextant.  The result is a value that agrees with general relativity (a quadrupole moment on the order of 2 × 10−7).  See Lydon and Sofia, Phys. Rev. Lett. 76, 177 (1996).

2.  A new, slightly indirect but quite powerful method has been developed to measure the Solar quadrupole moment, by using helio-seismography to measure the Sun's rotation rate.  Again, the results give a quadrupole moment on the order of 10−7, too small to affect the agreement between general relativity and the observed advance of Mercury's perihelion.  The best reference I know is Brown et al., Astrophys. J. 343, 526 (1989), which is cited by Will in the 1993 revision of his more technical book, Theory and experiment in gravitational physics.

3.  In 2018, Physical Review Letters published a new paper written by Will, which calculates a further GR contribution to Mercury's perihelion advance.  This contribution is a few parts per million of the standard precession prediction of 43 seconds per century, which was calculated by assuming that Mercury moves in a Schwarzschild spacetime centred around the Sun.  Will's calculation includes the effects of the Solar System's planets.  This effect might be measurable by the Bepi Colombo mission that currently consists of two craft orbiting Mercury.

While it's too early to say the issue is completely settled, the most recent and most accurate results seem to be converging towards a value that makes the GR predictions agree well with observation.