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Orbit is the path of one body around another object.

Orbit in physics, is the path that an object makes around another object while under the influence of a source of Centripetal force, such as gravity.

History of orbit.

Two bodies with a slight difference in mass orbiting around a common barycenter. The sizes, and this particular type of orbit are similar to the Pluto-Charon system.

Orbits were first analyzed mathematically by Johannes Kepler who formulated his results in his three laws of planetary motion. First, he found that the orbits of the planets in our Solar System are elliptical, not circular (or epicyclic), 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 of the planet depends on the planet's distance from the sun. And third, Kepler found a universal relationship between the orbital properties of all the planets orbiting the sun. For each planet, the cube of the planet's distance from the sun, measured in astronomical units (AU), is equal to the square of the planet's orbital period, measured in Earth years. Jupiter, for example, is approximately 5.2 AU from the sun and its orbital period is 11.86 Earth years. So 5.2 cubed equals 11.86 squared, as predicted.

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, dwarf planets, asteroids (a.k.a. minor planets), 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. 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 eccentricities are those of the orbits of 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 from each other.

In the elliptical orbit, the center of mass of the orbiting-orbited system will sit at one focus of both orbits, 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.

Understanding orbits.

There are a few common ways of understanding orbits.

As an illustration of the orbit around a planet (eg Earth), the much-used cannon model may prove useful (see image below). Imagine a cannon sitting on top of a (very) tall mountain, which fires a cannonball horizontally. The mountain needs to be very tall, so that the cannon will be above the Earth's atmosphere and we can ignore the effects of air friction on the cannon ball.

Orbit the Earth.
Orbit around the Earth.

If the cannon fires its ball with a low initial velocity, the trajectory of the ball will curve downwards and hit the ground (A). As the firing velocity is increased, the cannonball will hit the ground farther (B) and farther (C) 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 (D). The orbit may be circular like (D) or if the firing velocity is increased even more, the orbit may become more (E) and more (F) elliptical. At a certain even faster velocity (called the escape velocity) the motion changes from an elliptical orbit to a parabola, and will go off indefinitely and never return. At faster velocities, the orbit shape will become a hyperbola.

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 gravitational potential energy than one that's close, because it can fall farther.

With two bodies, an orbit is a conic section. The orbit can be open (so the object never returns) or closed (returning), depending on the total kinetic + 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.

An open orbit has the shape of a hyperbola (when the velocity is greater than the escape velocity), or a parabola (when the velocity is exactly the escape velocity). 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 may be the case with some comets if they come from outside the solar system.

A closed orbit has the shape of an ellipse. In the special case that the orbiting body is always the same distance from the center, it is also the shape of a circle. Otherwise, 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 semi-major axis 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, Karl Fritiof 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. Still there are secular phenomena that have to be dealt with by post-newtonian methods.

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 analyze 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 center of force. In such coordinates the radial and transverse components of the acceleration are, respectively?

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


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

Since the force is entirely radial, and since acceleration is proportional to force, it follows that the transverse acceleration is zero. As a result,

\frac{d}{dt}\left( r^2\frac{d\theta}{dt} \right)   =  0.

After integrating, we have

r^2\frac{d\theta}{dt} = {\rm const.}

The constant of integration l is the angular momentum per unit mass. It then follows that

\frac{d\theta}{dt} = {  l \over r^2 }  = lu^2

where we have introduced the auxiliary variable

u = { 1 \over r }.

The radial force is f(r) per unit isar, 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)}{l^2u^2}.

In the case of gravity, Newton's law of universal gravitation states that the force is proportional to the inverse square of the distance:

f(1/u) = a_r = { -GM \over r^2 } = -GM u^2

where G is the constant of universal gravitation, m is the mass of the orbiting body (planet), and M is the mass of the central body (the Sun). Substituting into the prior equation, we have

\frac{d^2u}{d\theta^2} + u = \frac{ GM }{l^2}.

So for the gravitational force - or, more generally, for any inverse square force law - the right hand side of the equation becomes a constant and the equation is seen to be the harmonic equation (up to 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^2 / GM }{1 + e \cos (\theta - \theta_0)} = \frac{p}{1 + e \cos (\theta - \theta_0)},

where p, e and?0are constants of integration,

p = { l^2 \over GM } = a(1-e^2)

If parameter e is smaller than one, e is the eccentricity and a the Semi-major axis of an ellipse. In general, this can be recognized as the equation of a conic section in polar coordinates (r,?).

Orbital period and orbital decay.

If some part of a body's orbit enters an atmosphere, its orbit can decay because of drag. At 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.

(this is not a complete list).

Scaling in gravity

The gravitational constant G is measured to be:

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 remain 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 s, 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.

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