Welcome to practical physicsPracticle physics - practical activities designed for use in the classroom with 11 to 19 year olds

An epicycle system for planets


Simple models to show epicyclic and retrograde motion from an Earth centred view.

Apparatus and materials

Ball, large (7.5 cm diameter approximately)

Ball, small (2.5 cm diameter approximately)

Health & Safety and Technical notes

In procedure b make sure that parts cannot fly off and hit observers.

A suitable turntable for part c can be obtained from ASCOL, catalogue number P16-1000.

using a ball held in the hand to mimic the effect of the epicycles of the planets



a Hold the larger ball stationary in front of you to represent the fixed 'Earth'. Hold the small ball in your outstretched arm so that you can sweep it in a large arc vertically around the 'Earth' as centre. At the same time make your outstretched hand turn quickly around the wrist so that the ‘planet’ turns in a small circle as it moves in its large orbit.
b You can use a small electric motor assembly to represent the ‘planet’ moving in its epicycle. Sweep the whole assembly in a large vertical arc about the fixed ‘Earth’ whilst the motor drives the ‘planet’ in its small circle.

adding a motor to the hand-held epicycle model

c The electric motor assembly can be mounted on a rotating turntable. If the turntable is rotated slowly by hand whilst the sphere on the electric motor assembly rotates, you can observe the epicyclic motion. The motor may be tilted a little.motor used tro drive epicycle model


Teaching notes

This model still fixes the Earth at the centre of the star sphere. The radius of that circle acts as an arm to carry, at its end, a small circle (an epicyle). A radius of that small circle carries a planet round its circumference at a steady rate while the arm of the large circle revolves at a smaller steady speed.

  epicycle system for Jupiter

In this epicycle system for Jupiter, arm EA rotates around the Earth once in 12 years, while arm AJ carries the planet J round once in 365 days. The two motions combine to give the pattern below.
  two circular motions combine to produce the epicycloid pattern that is observed for a planet 
This experiment was safety-checked in July 2007