In physics, an orbit is the gravitationally curved trajectory of an object, such as the trajectory of a planet around a star or a natural satellite around a planet. Normally, orbit refers to a regularly repeating trajectory, although it may also refer to a non-repeating trajectory. To a close approximation, planets and satellites follow elliptic orbits, with the center of mass being orbited at a focal point of the ellipse, as described by Kepler's laws of planetary motion.
For most situations, orbital motion is adequately approximated by Newtonian mechanics, which explains gravity as a force obeying an inverse-square law. However, Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, which accounts for gravity as due to curvature of spacetime, with orbits following geodesics, provides a more accurate calculation and understanding of the exact mechanics of orbital motion.
HistoryHistorically, the apparent motions of the planets were described by European and Arabic philosophers using the idea of celestial spheres. This model posited the existence of perfect moving spheres or rings to which the stars and planets were attached. It assumed the heavens were fixed apart from the motion of the spheres, and was developed without any understanding of gravity. After the planets' motions were more accurately measured, theoretical mechanisms such as deferent and epicycles were added. Although the model was capable of reasonably accurately predicting the planets' positions in the sky, more and more epicycles were required as the measurements became more accurate, hence the model became increasingly unwieldy. Originally geocentric, it was modified by Copernicus to place the Sun at the centre to help simplify the model. The model was further challenged during the 16th century, as comets were observed traversing the spheres.
The basis for the modern understanding of orbits was first formulated by Johannes Kepler whose results are summarised in his three laws of planetary motion. First, he found that the orbits of the planets in our Solar System are elliptical, not circular, as had previously been believed, and that the Sun is not located at the center of the orbits, but rather at one focus. Second, he found that the orbital speed of each planet is not constant, as had previously been thought, but rather that the speed depends on the planet's distance from the Sun. Third, Kepler found a universal relationship between the orbital properties of all the planets orbiting the Sun. For the planets, the cubes of their distances from the Sun are proportional to the squares of their orbital periods. Jupiter and Venus, for example, are respectively about 5.2 and 0.723 AU distant from the Sun, their orbital periods respectively about 11.86 and 0.615 years. The proportionality is seen by the fact that the ratio for Jupiter, 5.23/11.862, is practically equal to that for Venus, 0.7233/0.6152, in accord with the relationship. Idealised orbits meeting these rules are known as Kepler orbits.
s: the shapes of the curves of intersection between a plane and a cone. Parabolic and hyperbolic orbits are escape orbits, whereas elliptical and circular orbits are captive.
Isaac Newton demonstrated that Kepler's laws were derivable from his theory of gravitation and that, in general, the orbits of bodies subject to gravity were conic sections. Newton showed that, for a pair of bodies, the orbits' sizes are in inverse proportion to their masses, and that those bodies orbit 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.
Advances in Newtonian mechanics were then used to explore variations from the simple assumptions behind Kepler orbits, such as the perturbations due to other bodies, or the impact of spheroidal rather than spherical bodies. Lagrange developed a new approach to Newtonian mechanics emphasizing energy more than force, and made progress on the three body problem, discovering the Lagrangian points. In a dramatic vindication of classical mechanics, in 1846 Urbain Le Verrier was able to predict the position of Neptune based on unexplained perturbations in the orbit of Uranus.
Albert Einstein in his 1916 paper The Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity explained that gravity was due to curvature of space-time and removed Newton's assumption that changes propagate instantaneously. This led astronomers to recognize that Newtonian mechanics did not provide the highest accuracy in understanding orbits. In relativity theory, orbits follow geodesic trajectories which are usually approximated very well by the Newtonian predictions but the differences are measurable. Essentially all the experimental evidence that can distinguish between the theories agrees with relativity theory to within experimental measurement accuracy. The original vindication of general relativity is that it was able to account for the remaining unexplained amount in precession of Mercury's perihelion first noted by Le Verrier. However, Newton's solution is still used for most short term purposes since it is significantly easier to use and sufficiently accurate.
Planetary orbitsWithin a planetary system, planets, dwarf planets, asteroids and other minor planets, comets, and space debris orbit the system's barycenter in elliptical orbits. A comet in a parabolic or hyperbolic orbit about a barycenter is not gravitationally bound to the star and therefore is not considered part of the star's planetary system. Bodies which are gravitationally bound to one of the planets in a planetary system, either natural or artificial satellites, follow orbits about a barycenter near or within that planet.
Owing to mutual gravitational perturbations, the eccentricities of the planetary orbits vary over time. Mercury, the smallest planet in the Solar System, has the most eccentric orbit. At the present epoch, Mars has the next largest eccentricity while the smallest orbital eccentricities are seen with Venus and Neptune.
As two objects orbit each other, the periapsis is that point at which the two objects are closest to each other and the apoapsis is that point at which they are the farthest.
In the case of planets orbiting a star, the mass of the star and all its satellites are calculated to be at a single point called the barycenter. The paths of all the star's satellites are elliptical orbits about that barycenter. Each satellite in that system will have its own elliptical orbit with the barycenter at one focal point of that ellipse. At any point along its orbit, any satellite will have a certain value of kinetic and potential energy with respect to the barycenter, and that energy is a constant value at every point along its orbit. As a result, as a planet approaches periapsis, the planet will increase in speed as its potential energy decreases; as a planet approaches apoapsis, its velocity will decrease as its potential energy increases.
Understanding orbitsThere are a few common ways of understanding orbits:
- A force, such as gravity, pulls an object into a curved path as it attempts to fly off in a straight line.
- As the object is pulled toward the massive body, it falls toward that body. However, if it has enough tangential velocity it will not fall into the body but will instead continue to follow the curved trajectory caused by that body indefinitely. The object is then said to be orbiting the body.
If the cannon fires its ball with a low initial speed, the trajectory of the ball curves downward and hits the ground. As the firing speed is increased, the cannonball hits the ground farther away from the cannon, because while the ball is still falling towards the ground, the ground is increasingly curving away from it. All these motions are actually "orbits" in a technical sense – they are describing a portion of an elliptical path around the center of gravity – but the orbits are interrupted by striking the Earth.
If the cannonball is fired with sufficient speed, the ground curves away from the ball at least as much as the ball falls – so the ball never strikes the ground. It is now in what could be called a non-interrupted, or circumnavigating, orbit. For any specific combination of height above the center of gravity and mass of the planet, there is one specific firing speed that produces a circular orbit, as shown in.
As the firing speed is increased beyond this, non-interrupted elliptic orbits are produced; one is shown in. If the initial firing is above the surface of the Earth as shown, there will also be non-interrupted elliptical orbits at slower firing speed; these will come closest to the Earth at the point half an orbit beyond, and directly opposite the firing point, below the circular orbit.
At a specific horizontal firing speed called escape velocity, dependent on the mass of the planet, an open orbit is achieved that has a parabolic path. At even greater speeds the object will follow a range of hyperbolic trajectories. In a practical sense, both of these trajectory types mean the object is "breaking free" of the planet's gravity, and "going off into space" never to return.
The velocity relationship of two moving objects with mass can thus be considered in four practical classes, with subtypes:
- No orbit
- Suborbital trajectories
- * Range of interrupted elliptical paths
- Orbital trajectories
- * Range of elliptical paths with closest point opposite firing point
- * Circular path
- * Range of elliptical paths with closest point at firing point
- Open trajectories
- * Parabolic paths
- * Hyperbolic paths
Once in orbit, their speed keeps them in orbit above the atmosphere. If e.g., an elliptical orbit dips into dense air, the object will lose speed and re-enter. Occasionally a space craft will intentionally intercept the atmosphere, in an act commonly referred to as an aerobraking maneuver.