In physics, gravitational acceleration is the acceleration of an object in free fall within a vacuum (and thus without experiencing drag). This is the steady gain in speed caused exclusively by the force of gravitational attraction. All bodies accelerate in vacuum at the same rate, regardless of the or compositions of the bodies;
At a fixed point on the surface, the magnitude of Earth's gravity results from combined effect of gravitation and the centrifugal force from Earth's rotation.
where and are any two masses, is the gravitational constant, and is the distance between the two point-like masses. Using the integral form of Gauss's Law, this formula can be extended to any pair of objects of which one is far more massive than the other — like a planet relative to any man-scale artifact. The distances between planets and between the planets and the Sun are (by many orders of magnitude) larger than the sizes of the sun and the planets. In consequence both the sun and the planets can be considered as and the same formula applied to planetary motions. (As planets and natural satellites form pairs of comparable mass, the distance 'r' is measured from the common centers of mass of each pair rather than the direct total distance between planet centers.)
If one mass is much larger than the other, it is convenient to take it as observational reference and define it as source of a gravitational field of magnitude and orientation given by:
where is the mass of the field source (larger), and is a unit vector directed from the field source to the sample (smaller) mass. The negative sign indicates that the force is attractive (points backward, toward the source).
Then the attraction force vector onto a sample mass can be expressed as:
Here is the , free-fall acceleration sustained by the sampling mass under the attraction of the gravitational source. It is a vector oriented toward the field source, of magnitude measured in acceleration units. The gravitational acceleration vector depends only on how massive the field source is and on the distance 'r' to the sample mass . It does not depend on the magnitude of the small sample mass.
This model represents the "far-field" gravitational acceleration associated with a massive body. When the dimensions of a body are not trivial compared to the distances of interest, the principle of superposition can be used for differential masses for an assumed density distribution throughout the body in order to get a more detailed model of the "near-field" gravitational acceleration. For satellites in orbit, the far-field model is sufficient for rough calculations of altitude versus Orbital period, but not for precision estimation of future location after multiple orbits.
The more detailed models include (among other things) the equatorial bulge for the Earth, and irregular mass concentrations (due to meteor impacts) for the Moon. The Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) mission launched in 2002 consists of two probes, nicknamed "Tom" and "Jerry", in polar orbit around the Earth measuring differences in the distance between the two probes in order to more precisely determine the gravitational field around the Earth, and to track changes that occur over time. Similarly, the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory mission from 2011-2012 consisted of two probes ("Ebb" and "Flow") in polar orbit around the Moon to more precisely determine the gravitational field for future navigational purposes, and to infer information about the Moon's physical makeup.