On the number of equilibria balancing Newtonian point masses with a central force

Journal of Mathematical Physics, Volume 62, Issue 11, November 2021. We consider the critical points (equilibria) of a planar potential generated by n Newtonian point masses augmented with a quadratic term (such as arises from a centrifugal effect). Particular cases of this problem have been considered previously in studies of the circular-restricted n-body problem. We show that the number of equilibria is finite for a generic set of parameters, and we establish estimates for the number of equilibria. We prove that the number of equilibria is bounded below by n + 1, and we provide examples to show that this lower bound is sharp. We prove an upper bound on the number of equilibria that grows exponentially in n. In order to establish a lower bound on the maximum number of equilibria, we analyze a class of examples, referred to as “ring configurations,” consisting of n − 1 equal masses positioned at vertices of a regular polygon with an additional mass located at the center. Previous numerical observations indicate that these configurations can produce as many as 5n − 5 equilibria. We verify analytically that the ring configuration has at least 5n − 5 equilibria when the central mass is sufficiently small. We conjecture that the maximum number of equilibria grows linearly with the number of point masses. We also discuss some mathematical similarities to other equilibrium problems in mathematical physics, namely, Maxwell’s problem from electrostatics and the image counting problem from gravitational lensing.