The study of perturbations began with the first attempts to predict planetary motions in the sky. In ancient times the causes were a mystery. Newton, at the time he formulated his laws of motion and of gravitation, applied them to the first analysis of perturbations, recognizing the complex difficulties of their calculation. Many of the great mathematicians since then have given attention to the various problems involved; throughout the 18th and 19th centuries there was demand for accurate tables of the position of the Moon and planets for marine navigation.
The complex motions of gravitational perturbations can be broken down. The hypothetical motion that the body follows under the gravitational effect of one other body only is typically a conic section, and can be readily described with the methods of geometry. This is called a two-body problem, or an unperturbed Keplerian orbit. The differences between that and the actual motion of the body are perturbations due to the additional gravitational effects of the remaining body or bodies. If there is only one other significant body then the perturbed motion is a three-body problem; if there are multiple other bodies it is an n-body problem. A general analytical solution (a mathematical expression to predict the positions and motions at any future time) exists for the two-body problem; when more than two bodies are considered analytic solutions exist only for special cases. Even the two-body problem becomes insoluble if one of the bodies is irregular in shape.
's orbital longitude and latitude, as perturbed by Venus
and all of the planets of the Solar System
, at intervals of 2.5 days. Mercury would remain centered on the crosshairs if there were no perturbations.
Most systems that involve multiple gravitational attractions present one primary body which is dominant in its effects (for example, a star, in the case of the star and its planet, or a planet, in the case of the planet and its satellite). The gravitational effects of the other bodies can be treated as perturbations of the hypothetical unperturbed motion of the planet or satellite around its primary body.