We know that spinning objects on earth can lose their spin (angular momentum) due to friction (fluid or sliding) with the air or ground. However, if an object is set spinning in space, will it lose its initial angular momentum eventually or will it spin forever assuming no outside forces (e.g., gravity) act upon it? If it does come to rest, how does the earth maintain its spinning motion? — RD, Kingwood, TX
If a spinning object is truly free of outside torques—the influences that affect rotation—then it will spin forever. Angular momentum is a conserved quantity in our universe, meaning that it can’t be created or destroyed and can only be transferred between objects. Thus if you set an object spinning (by exerting a torque on it) and then leave it entirely alone, it will not be able to change its angular momentum. The earth is a good example of this situation—it’s almost free of torques and so it spins steadily about a fixed axis in space. Its angular momentum is essentially unchanging.
Since gravity acts at the center of rotation of a freely falling object (which is that object’s center of mass), gravity exerts no torque on freely falling objects. Because of that fact, even objects in orbit around the earth are essentially free of torques and satellites that are set spinning when they’re launched continue to spin steadily for centuries. The space shuttle astronauts encounter this result each time they release or catch a satellite. If they set it spinning when they let go of it, it will still be spinning when they retrieve it years later.