Suppose we were in a spaceship in free fall, where objects are weightless, and wanted to know a small solid object`s mass. We could not simply balance that object against another of known weight, as we would on Earth. The unknown mass could be determined, however, by placing the object on a spring scale and swinging the scale in a circle at the end of a string. The scale would measure the tension in the string, which would depend on both the speed of revolution and the mass of the object. The tension would be greater, the greater the mass or the greater the speed of revolution. From the measured tension and speed of whirling, we could determine the object`s mass.
Astronomers use an analogous procedure to "weigh" double-star systems. The speed with which the two stars in a double-star system circle one another depends on the gravitational force between them, which holds the system together. This attractive force, analogous to the tension in the string, is proportional to the stars` combined mass, according to Newton`s law of gravitation. By observing the time required for the stars to circle each other (the period) and measuring the distance between them, we can deduce the restraining force, and hence the masses.