Satellite Orbits

Satellites orbit around celestial bodies, such as planets or stars, under the influence of gravity. The specific characteristics of a satellite’s orbit depend on various factors, including its altitude, velocity, and the mass of the celestial body it is orbiting. Here are some key concepts related to satellite orbits:

  1. Orbital Altitude: The altitude or distance above the Earth’s surface at which a satellite orbits is a crucial factor. Satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) are closer to the Earth and typically orbit at altitudes ranging from about 160 kilometers (100 miles) to around 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles). Medium Earth orbit (MEO) and geostationary orbit (GEO) satellites are positioned at higher altitudes, with GEO satellites orbiting at approximately 35,786 kilometers (22,236 miles) above the equator.
  2. Orbital Velocity: The speed at which a satellite orbits its parent body is called its orbital velocity. The orbital velocity depends on the altitude and the mass of the celestial body. Satellites in lower orbits must travel faster to maintain their orbits, while those in higher orbits can move more slowly.
  3. Orbital Period: The time it takes for a satellite to complete one orbit around its parent body is called its orbital period. This period is determined by the satellite’s altitude and orbital velocity. Satellites in lower orbits have shorter orbital periods than those in higher orbits.
  4. Types of Orbits:
    • Low Earth Orbit (LEO): Satellites in LEO are positioned relatively close to the Earth’s surface. They are often used for purposes such as Earth observation, communication, and scientific research. The International Space Station (ISS) is an example of a satellite in LEO.
    • Medium Earth Orbit (MEO): Satellites in MEO are positioned at intermediate altitudes. Navigation satellites like those in the Global Positioning System (GPS) are located in MEO to provide global coverage.
    • Geostationary Orbit (GEO): Satellites in GEO orbit at the same speed as the Earth’s rotation, making them appear stationary relative to the Earth’s surface. This characteristic makes them ideal for communication and weather observation satellites.
    • Polar Orbit: Satellites in polar orbits pass over the Earth’s poles, providing global coverage as the Earth rotates beneath them. These orbits are commonly used for Earth observation and scientific missions.
  5. Orbital Decay: Satellites in low orbits can experience orbital decay due to atmospheric drag. Over time, they lose altitude and eventually re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere. To counteract this, they may need periodic boosts to maintain their orbits.
  6. Kepler’s Laws: Johannes Kepler formulated three laws of planetary motion, which also apply to satellites. These laws describe the elliptical nature of orbits, the relationship between orbital radius and orbital period, and the equal area law, which governs the speed of a satellite as it moves along its orbit.
  7. Two-Body Problem: The motion of a satellite is typically described using the two-body problem, which simplifies the interaction between the satellite and the celestial body to just two objects: the satellite and the celestial body.

In summary, satellite orbits are determined by a combination of factors, including altitude, velocity, and the gravitational pull of the celestial body they are orbiting. Different types of orbits are used for various purposes, ranging from Earth observation and communication to navigation and scientific research.

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