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For other meanings of the term "orbit", see orbit (disambiguation)

In physics, an orbit is the path that an object makes, around another object, whilst under the influence of a source of centripetal force, such as gravity.



Orbits were first analysed mathematically by Kepler who formulated his results in his laws of planetary motion. He found that the orbits of the planets in our solar system are elliptical, not circular (or epicyclic), as had previously been believed.

Isaac Newton demonstrated that Kepler's laws were derivable from his theory of gravitation and that, in general, the orbits of bodies responding to the force of gravity were conic sections. Newton showed that a pair of bodies follow orbits of dimensions that are in inverse proportion to their masses about their common center of mass. Where one body is much more massive than the other, it is a convenient approximation to take the center of mass as coinciding with the center of the more massive body.

Planetary orbits

Within a planetary system, planets, asteroids, comets and space debris orbit the central star in elliptical orbits. Any comet in a parabolic or hyperbolic orbit about the central star is not gravitationally bound to the star and therefore is not considered part of the star's planetary system. To date, no comet has been observed in our solar system with a distinctly hyperbolic orbit. Bodies which are gravitationally bound to one of the planets in a planetary system, either natural or artificial satellites, follow orbits about that planet.

Due to mutual gravitational perturbations, the eccentricities of the orbits of the planets in our solar system vary over time. Pluto and Mercury have the most eccentric orbits. At the present epoch, Mars has the next largest eccentricity while the smallest eccentricities are those of the orbits of Venus and Neptune.

As an object orbits another object, the periapsis is that point at which the orbiting object is closest to the object being orbited and the apoapsis is that point at which the orbiting object is farthest from the object being orbited.

In the elliptical orbit, the orbited object will sit at one focus; with nothing present at the other focus. As a planet approaches periapsis, the planet will increase in velocity. As a planet approaches apoapsis, the planet will decrease in velocity.

See also: Kepler's laws of planetary motion

Understanding orbits

There are a few common ways of understanding orbits.

  • As the object moves, it falls toward the orbited object. However it moves so quickly that the curvature of the orbited object will fall away beneath it.
  • A force, such as gravity, pulls the object into a curved path as it attempts to fly off in a straight line.
  • As the object falls, it moves sideways fast enough (has enough tangential velocity) to miss the orbited object. This understanding is particularly useful for mathematical analysis, because the object's motion can be described as the sum of three one-dimensional orbits around a gravitational center.

As an illustration of the orbit around a planet (eg Earth), the much-used cannon model may prove useful. Imagine a cannon sitting on top of a (very) tall mountain, which fires a cannonball horizontally. If the cannon fires its ball with a low initial velocity, the trajectory of the ball will curve downwards and hit the ground. As the firing velocity is increased, the cannonball will hit the ground further and further away from the cannon, because while the ball is still falling towards the ground, the ground is curving away from it (see first point, above). If the cannonball is fired with sufficient velocity, the ground will curve away from the ball at the same rate as the ball falls - it is now in orbit.

Newton's laws of motion

For a system of only two bodies that are only influenced by their mutual gravity, their orbits can be exactly calculated by Newton's laws of motion and gravity. Briefly, the sum of the forces will equal the mass times its acceleration. Gravity is proportional to mass, and falls off proportionally to the square of distance.

To calculate, it is convenient to describe the motion in a coordinate system that is centered on the heavier body, and we can say that the lighter body is in orbit around the heavier body.

An unmoving body that's far from a large object has more energy than one that's close. This is because it can fall farther. This is called "potential energy" because it is not yet actual.

With two bodies, an orbit is a flat curve. The orbit can be open (so the object never returns) or closed (returning), depending on the total kinetic + potential energy of the system. In the case of an open orbit, the speed at any position of the orbit is at least the escape velocity for that position, in the case of a closed orbit, always less.

The path of a free-falling (orbiting) body is always a conic section.

An open orbit has the shape of a hyperbola (or in the limiting case, a parabola); the bodies approach each other for a while, curve around each other around the time of their closest approach, and then separate again forever. This is often the case with comets that occasionally approach the Sun.

A closed orbit has the shape of an ellipse (or in the limiting case, a circle). The point where the orbiting body is closest to Earth is the perigee, called periapsis (less properly, "perifocus" or "pericentron") when the orbit is around a body other than Earth. The point where the satellite is farthest from Earth is called apogee, apoapsis, or sometimes apifocus or apocentron. A line drawn from periapsis to apoapsis is the line-of-apsides. This is the major axis of the ellipse, the line through its longest part.

Orbiting bodies in closed orbits repeat their path after a constant period of time. This motion is described by the empirical laws of Kepler, which can be mathematically derived from Newton's laws. These can be formulated as follows:

  1. The orbit of a planet around the Sun is an ellipse, with the Sun in one of the focal points of the ellipse. Therefore the orbit lies in a plane, called the orbital plane. The point on the orbit closest to the attracting body is the periapsis. The point farthest from the attracting body is called the apoapsis. There are also specific terms for orbits around particular bodies; things orbiting the Sun have a perihelion and aphelion, things orbiting the Earth have a perigee and apogee, and things orbiting the Moon have a perilune and apolune (or, synonymously, periselene and aposelene). An orbit around any star, not just the Sun, has a periastron and an apastron
  2. As the planet moves around its orbit during a fixed amount of time, the line from Sun to planet sweeps a constant area of the orbital plane, regardless of which part of its orbit the planet traces during that period of time. This means that the planet moves faster near its perihelion than near its aphelion, because at the smaller distance it needs to trace a greater arc to cover the same area. This law is usually stated as "equal areas in equal time."
  3. For each planet, the ratio of the 3rd power of its average distance to the Sun, to the 2nd power of its period, is the same constant value for all planets.

Except for special cases like Lagrangian points, no method is known to solve the equations of motion for a system with four or more bodies. The 2-body solutions were published by Newton in Principia in 1687. In 1912, K. F. Sundman developed a converging infinite series that solves the 3-body problem, however it converges too slowly to be of much use.

Instead, orbits can be approximated with arbitrarily high accuracy. These approximations take two forms.

One form takes the pure elliptic motion as a basis, and adds perturbation terms to account for the gravitational influence of multiple bodies. This is convenient for calculating the positions of astronomical bodies. The equations of motion of the moon, planets and other bodies are known with great accuracy, and are used to generate tables for celestial navigation.

The differential equation form is used for scientific or mission-planning purposes. According to Newton's laws, the sum of all the forces will equal the mass times its acceleration (F = ma). Therefore accelerations can be expressed in terms of positions. The perturbation terms are much easier to describe in this form. Predicting subsequent positions and velocities from initial ones corresponds to solving an initial value problem. Numerical methods calculate the positions and velocities of the objects a tiny time in the future, then repeat this. However, tiny arithmetic errors from the limited accuracy of a computer's math accumulate limiting the accuracy of this approach.

Differential simulations with large numbers of objects perform the calculations in a hierarchical pairwise fashion between centers of mass. Using this scheme, galaxies, star clusters and other large objects have been simulated.

Analysis of orbital motion

(see also orbit equation and Kepler's first law)

To analyse the motion of a body moving under the influence of a force which is always directed towards a fixed point, it is convenient to use polar coordinates with the origin coinciding with the centre of force. In such coordinates the radial and transverse components of the acceleration are, respectively:

\frac{d^2r}{dt^2} - r\left( \frac{d\theta}{dt} \right)^2


\frac{1}{r}\frac{d}{dt}\left( r^2\frac{d\theta}{dt} \right).

Since the force is always radial, the transverse acceleration is zero, and it follows that:

\frac{d\theta}{dt} = hu^2,

where h is a constant of integration and we have introduced the auxiliary variable u defined as 1/r. If magnitude of the radial force is f(r) per unit mass of the orbiting body, then the elimination of the time variable from the radial component of the equation of motion yields:

\frac{d^2u}{d\theta^2} + u = \frac{f(1 / u)}{h^2u^2}.

In the case of an inverse square force law the right hand side of the equation becomes a constant and the equation is seen to be the harmonic equation (upto a shift of origin of the dependent variable).

The equation of the orbit described by the particle is thus:

r = \frac{1}{u} = \frac{l}{1 + e \cos (\theta - \phi)},

where φ and e are constants of integration. This can be recognised as the equation of a conic section in polar coordinates.

Orbital parameters

See: Orbital elements

For a general elliptic orbit, the relations between the axis, eccentricity, and least and largest distance are:

Semimajor axis = (periapsis + apoapsis)/2 = geometric mean radius
Periapsis = semimajor axis × (1 - eccentricity) = least distance
Apoapsis = semimajor axis × (1 + eccentricity) = largest distance

Note that there are alternative definitions for a "mean radius" or "average distance": if you average the radius over time for one orbit, or over the central angle (true anomaly), then the average distance is a function of both semimajor axis and eccentricity. See here for details.

Orbital period

See: orbital period

Orbital decay

If some part of a body's orbit enters an atmosphere, its orbit can decay because of drag. Each periapsis the object scrapes the air, losing energy. Each time, the orbit grows less eccentric (more circular) because the object loses kinetic energy precisely when that energy is at its maximum. Eventually, the orbit circularises and then the object spirals into the atmosphere.

The bounds of an atmosphere vary wildly. During solar maxima, the Earth's atmosphere causes drag up to a hundred kilometres higher than during solar minimums.

Some satellites with long conductive tethers can also decay because of electromagnetic drag from the Earth's magnetic field. Basically, the wire cuts the magnetic field, and acts as a generator. The wire moves electrons from the near vacuum on one end to the near-vacuum on the other end. The orbital energy is converted to heat in the wire.

Another method of artificially influencing an orbit is through the use of solar sails or magnetic sails. These forms of propulsion require no propellant or energy input, and so can be used indefinitely. See statite for one such proposed use.

Orbital decay can also occur due to tidal forces for objects below the synchronous orbit for the body they're orbiting. The gravity of the orbiting object raises tidal bulges in the primary, and since below the synchronous orbit the orbiting object is moving faster than the body's surface the bulges lag a short angle behind it. The gravity of the bulges is slightly off of the primary-satellite axis and thus has a component along the satellite's motion. The near bulge slows the object more than the far bulge speeds it up, and as a result the orbit decays. Conversely, the gravity of the satellite on the bulges applies torque on the primary and speeds up its rotation. Artificial satellites are too small to have an appreciable tidal effect on the planets they orbit, but several moons in the solar system are undergoing orbital decay by this mechanism. Mars' innermost moon Phobos is a prime example, and is expected to either impact Mars' surface or break up into a ring within 50 million years.

Finally, orbits can decay via the emission of gravitational waves. This mechanism is extremely weak for most stellar objects, only becoming significant in cases where there is a combination of extreme mass and extreme acceleration, such as with black holes or neutron stars that are orbiting each other closely.

Earth orbits

See Earth orbit for more details.

(this is not a complete list).

Scaling in gravity

G = 6.6742 × 10−11 N·m2/kg2 = 6.6742 × 10−11 m3/(kg.s2) = 6.6742 × 10−11(kg/m3)-1s-2

Thus the constant has dimension density-1 time-2. This corresponds to the following properties.

Scaling of distances (including sizes of bodies, while keeping the densities the same) gives similar orbits without scaling the time: if for example distances are halved, masses are divided by 8, gravitational forces by 16 and gravitational accelerations by 2. Hence orbital periods remains the same. Similarly, when an object is dropped from a tower, the time it takes to fall to the ground remains the same with a scale model of the tower on a scale model of the earth.

When all densities are multiplied by four, orbits are the same, but with orbital velocities doubled.

When all densities are multiplied by four, and all sizes are halved, orbits are similar, with the same orbital velocities.

These properties are illustrated in the formula

GT^2 \sigma = 3\pi \left( \frac{a}{r} \right)^3,

for an elliptical orbit with semi-major axis a, of a small body around a spherical body with radius r and average density σ, where T is the orbital period.

Role in the evolution of atomic theory

When atomic structure was first probed experimentally early in the twentieth century, an early picture of the atom portrayed it as a miniature solar system bound by the coulomb force rather than by gravity. This was inconsistent with electrodynamics and the model was progressively refined as quantum theory evolved, but there is a legacy of the picture in the term orbital for the wave function of an energetically bound electron state.

See also

External links

  • An on-line orbit plotter:

Last updated: 02-07-2005 06:08:20
Last updated: 02-20-2005 07:07:52