# Section 4: The Basics of Satellite Orbits

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1 Section 4: The Basics of Satellite Orbits MOTION IN SPACE VS. MOTION IN THE ATMOSPHERE The motion of objects in the atmosphere differs in three important ways from the motion of objects in space. First, the speed of an airplane bears no particular relationship to its flight path or altitude: two airplanes can follow the same flight path at different speeds. In contrast, a strict relationship holds between a satellite s orbit and its speed: as an example, for circular orbits, all satellites traveling at the same altitude must have the same speed, and satellites at different altitudes must have different speeds. As detailed below, this relationship between altitude and speed severely constrains the behavior of objects in space. 1 Second, an airplane uses the presence of the air not only to stay aloft, but to maneuver. Similar to the way a boat maneuvers in water by using oars or a rudder to push against the water, an airplane uses wing flaps and a rudder to change direction by pushing against the air. In the vacuum of space, this is not possible. A satellite must instead use small rocket engines to maneuver. Because such rockets require propellant, this has important implications for the design and capabilities of satellites. Third, since air resistance to an airplane s motion continually slows it down, an airplane must be continually powered by engines to stay in flight. This is not true for a satellite in the vacuum of space. A rocket booster is needed to place a satellite in orbit, but once there it circles the Earth in its orbit without requiring constant powering from rocket engines. 2 The Moon, for example, is a naturally occurring satellite of the Earth that continues to orbit the Earth without benefit of a rocket booster. ORBITAL BASICS This section discusses, in general terms, the physics of satellite orbits. It summarizes the key concepts of orbital mechanics, which define the properties of a satellite in orbit: its orbital speed, orbital period, and the orientation of the orbit with respect to the equator. Mathematical details are provided in the Appendix to Section Airplanes and satellites resist gravity in very different ways. An airplane stays aloft because the motion of its wings through the air creates lift forces; we discuss the physics behind satellites below. 2. Satellites in orbits up to altitudes of several hundred kilometers will experience slight atmospheric drag, thus they must periodically fire rocket engines to counteract that drag and remain in orbit. THE BASICS OF SATELLITE ORBITS 19

2 In general, satellite orbits are ellipses. However, this section first considers the special case of circular orbits before turning to elliptical orbits. Circular orbits are simpler to describe and understand, and they are used for many applications. Orbital Speed of Satellites For a satellite in a circular orbit, the relationship between the orbital speed and altitude is strict. The task of the rocket launching the satellite is to release the satellite at the appropriate place in space, with the appropriate speed and direction of motion to put it in the desired orbit. How a satellite stays in orbit may be thought about in two equivalent ways, both of which explain the relation between the satellite s altitude and speed. The satellite s motion may be seen as creating a centrifugal force that opposes the attraction of gravity. For example, imagine attaching an object to a string and swinging it in circles. The object pulls outward against the string, and that outward force (the centrifugal force) becomes greater the faster the object swings. At the proper speed, the centrifugal force of the satellite due to its motion around the Earth just balances the pull of gravity, and the satellite remains in orbit. Since the gravitational pull grows weaker the further a satellite is from Earth, the centrifugal force needed to balance gravity also decreases with distance from the Earth. The higher the satellite s orbit, the lower its orbital speed. Alternately, the satellite can be viewed as constantly falling toward the center of the Earth. However, since the satellite is also moving parallel to the Earth s surface, the Earth continually curves away from satellite. In a circular orbit, the satellite s speed is exactly what is required so that it continually falls but keeps a constant distance from Earth. The required speed depends on the satellite s altitude because of the Earth-satellite geometry and because the rate at which the satellite falls toward the Earth depends on the strength of gravity at its altitude. For the case of a satellite traveling in a circular orbit, Figure 4.1 and Table 4.1 show the orbital speed for various altitudes. The required speeds are very high: satellites in low altitude orbits (up to about 1,000 km) travel at 7 to 8 km/s. This speed is roughly 30 times faster than a large passenger jet. 3 (By comparison, the rotational speed of the Earth s surface at the equator is 0.46 km/s.) If an object is launched from Earth with a speed of 11.2 km/s or greater, Earth s gravity is not strong enough to keep it in orbit and it will escape into deep space. This speed is therefore called the escape velocity. 3. A Boeing 747 aircraft has a typical cruising speed of about 900 km/hr, or 0.25 km/s; see 747 Technical Specifications, accessed January 15, THE PHYSICS OF SPACE SECURITY

3 Figure 4.1. Orbital speed for satellites in circular orbits at different altitudes Orbital speed vs. Altitude Altitude (km) Orbital speed (km/s) Table 4.1. Selected values for the speed and altitude of satellites in circular orbits. Altitude (km) Orbital Speed (km/s) , , , Semisynchronous: 20, Geosynchronous: 35, Note that the speed needed to keep a satellite in orbit does not depend on the mass of the satellite. This is fundamental to understanding issues related to space: the trajectory of an object in the vacuum of space does not depend on its mass. This means that lightweight debris or even paint chips will move on the same trajectory as a heavy satellite, and that a heavy satellite and a lightweight satellite (a micro-sat) with the same velocity will travel on the same orbit. 4 Our intuition on this point tends to be clouded by the fact that on Earth, air resistance affects the motion of light objects more than heavy objects. As noted above, once a satellite has been accelerated up to orbital speed by a rocket, it does not need to be continually powered to stay in orbit. This is a consequence of Newton s first law of motion, which says that in the absence 4. An important consequence of this fact for missile defenses that are designed to intercept above the atmosphere is that a heavy warhead and lightweight decoys will follow the same trajectory and, therefore, cannot be distinguished by observing their trajectories. THE BASICS OF SATELLITE ORBITS 21

4 of forces such as friction and air resistance, an object at rest will stay at rest and an object in motion will stay in motion. As a result, once put in motion by a rocket, a satellite will stay in motion, with the Earth s gravity bending its path from a straight line into an orbit. This means that satellites can stay in orbit for long periods of time, since they do not need to carry large amounts of fuel to keep them moving. It also means that once in orbit, other objects such as empty rocket stages, screws from the mechanisms that release satellites from the rocket that put them in space, and other debris will stay in orbit essentially indefinitely, unless they are at low enough altitudes that atmospheric drag slows them over time and they fall to Earth. This is the essence of the space debris problem: once debris is in orbit it will remain there and thus the amount of such debris will accumulate over time. Without efforts to minimize the creation of debris, some regions of space could eventually contain so much orbiting debris that it would be difficult to operate satellites there without the risk of collisions. Orbital Period of Satellites Another key parameter used to describe satellites is the time it takes for the satellite to travel around the Earth once, that is, to complete one orbit. This time is known as the period of the orbit. Since as the altitude of the orbit increases the satellite both moves more slowly and must travel farther on each orbit, the period increases with the altitude of the orbit. Table 4.2 and Figure 4.2 show the period for circular orbits at various altitudes. For low altitude orbits (a few hundred kilometers altitude), the period is about 90 minutes; at higher altitudes, the period increases. Since one day is roughly 1,440 minutes, the plot shows that a satellite at an altitude of about 36,000 kilometers orbits once a day at the same rate the Earth rotates. Such orbits are termed geosynchronous. A satellite placed in a geosynchronous orbit above the equator is unique in that it stays over the same point on the Earth. Such geostationary orbits have important uses, as discussed in the next section. Table 4.2. Select values for the orbital periods and altitudes of satellites in orbit. Altitude (km) Orbital Period (minutes) , , , Semisynchronous: 20, (12 hours) Geosynchronous: 35, (24 hours) 22 THE PHYSICS OF SPACE SECURITY

5 Figure 4.2. Orbital period as a function of altitude for circular orbits Orbital Period vs. Altitude Altitude (km) Orbital period (minutes) Orientation of the Plane of the Orbit A satellite s orbit always lies in a plane, and that plane passes through the center of the Earth. Describing a satellite s orbit requires specifying the orientation of this orbital plane. When the plane of the orbit includes the Earth s equator, the orbit is known as an equatorial orbit. In general, the plane of the orbit lies at an angle with respect to the Earth s equatorial plane; that angle is called the inclination angle (see Figure 4.3). When the inclination angle is 90 degrees, the orbital plane contains the Earth s axis and the orbit passes over the Earth s poles. Such an orbit is known as a polar orbit. Figure 4.3. Inclination angle of orbits. Note that the ground track of a satellite, which is the line of points on the Earth directly below the satellite, cannot reach above a latitude equal to the inclination angle of the orbit. THE BASICS OF SATELLITE ORBITS 23

6 The inclination of the orbit determines what parts of the Earth the satellite travels over. The path on the Earth s surface that lies directly beneath the satellite is called the ground track of the satellite. Figure 4.3 shows that a satellite in an orbit with inclination near zero passes over only those parts of the Earth that lie in a narrow band around the equator. Therefore, a satellite with inclination near zero may not be able to observe or communicate with parts of the Earth near the poles. More generally, Figure 4.3 shows that a satellite in an orbit with inclination angle θ cannot pass directly over any location on Earth with latitude greater than θ. (Recall that the latitude of a point on Earth is the angular position north or south of the equator.) A satellite launched from a site at latitude θ follows an orbit with inclination greater than or equal to θ. From a launch site at latitude θ it is not possible to launch a satellite into an orbit with inclination less than θ. As a result, a launch site that is not on the equator cannot place a satellite directly into an equatorial orbit. To change its inclination after it is in orbit, a satellite would need to maneuver, which requires propellant. 5 Elliptical Orbits In general, an orbit is not a circle, but an ellipse. A circle is the set of all points equidistant from a given point, which is the center of the circle. Instead of a center, an ellipse has two foci. The ellipse consists of those points with the property that the sum of the distance from each point to the two foci is constant. (So a circle is the special case in which the two foci merge to become a single point.) An elliptical satellite orbit has the Earth at one of the foci (see Figure 4.4). The line extending across the widest part of the ellipse is called the major axis; it passes through both foci. The line extending across the narrow part of the ellipse, perpendicular to the major axis, is called the minor axis (see Figure 4.4). The amount by which an ellipse deviates from a circle is described by its eccentricity, which varies between zero (corresponding to a circle) and one (corresponding to an infinitely thin ellipse). On an elliptical orbit, the altitude and the speed of the satellite vary with position around the orbit. The point on an elliptical orbit at which the satellite is closest to the Earth is called the perigee of the orbit, and the point at which it is furthest from the Earth is called the apogee. The perigee and apogee lie at opposite ends of the major axis. A satellite on an elliptical orbit moves faster when it is closer to the Earth (near perigee) and more slowly when it is farther from the Earth (near apogee). The speed of a satellite at a given point depends not only on its alti- 5. An orbit with inclination θ will be achieved if the satellite is placed in orbit with a velocity pointing due east or west when it is above the launch site (at latitude θ). If the satellite has an orbital velocity in any other direction at that location, it will pass over latitudes greater than that of the launch site, and the inclination angle will be greater than θ. 24 THE PHYSICS OF SPACE SECURITY

7 Figure 4.4. The top figure shows an ellipse, with the major and minor axes and the two foci marked. The lower figure shows satellites on circular and elliptical orbits, with the Earth at the center of the circular orbit and at one of the foci for the elliptical orbit. tude at that time, but also on the shape of the orbit (in particular, on the length of the major axis). If a satellite is on an elliptical orbit, its speed at a given altitude can be either higher or lower than the speed the satellite would have on a circular orbit at the same altitude, depending on the shape of the ellipse (see the Appendix to Section 4 and Section 6). The period of the orbit also depends on the length of the major axis: it increases as the major axis increases. Elliptical orbits can be geosynchronous but not geostationary since the satellite s orbital speed varies with time. (For more details on elliptical orbits, see the Appendix to Section 4.) THE BASICS OF SATELLITE ORBITS 25

8 Section 4 Appendix: Circular and Elliptical Orbits CIRCULAR ORBITS For the simple case of a satellite traveling in a circular orbit at altitude h with speed V, the centrifugal force equals the gravitational force on the satellite: mv 2 = GmM ( Re + h) ( R + h) e e 2 (4.1) where m is the mass of the satellite, G is the gravitational constant, M e is the mass of the Earth (GM e = m 3 /s 2 ), and R e is the average radius of the Earth (6,370 kilometers). Thus the speed of the satellite is related to its altitude by the simple equation 6 V = GM e h+ R e (4.2) It is useful to let r be the distance from the satellite to the center of the Earth, so that r Re + h (4.3) Using this notation, Equation 4.2 can be written (4.4) Notice that the mass of the satellite does not appear in Equations 4.2 or 4.4. The period can be found by dividing the distance the satellite travels in one orbit (in this case, the circumference of a circle with radius h + R e ) by the speed of satellite, which is given in Equation 4.2. The period P circ of a circular orbit is given by P circ (4.5) 6. This discussion assumes the Earth is spherical, with a radius R e and mass M e. The implications of the lack of spherical symmetry are discussed in Section THE PHYSICS OF SPACE SECURITY

9 ELLIPTICAL ORBITS An ellipse surrounds two points called foci. An elliptical satellite orbit has the Earth at one of the foci. Figure 4.5. This figure shows an ellipse with major axis of length 2a, minor axis of length 2b, and distance between the foci equal to 2c. The line containing the two foci is the major axis: its length is typically labeled 2a. The minor axis, the line perpendicular to it through the center of the ellipse has a length labeled 2b. The distance between the foci is called 2c (see Figure 4.5). These quantities are related by (4.6) The perigee of the orbit is the point at which the satellite is closest to the Earth; the distance from perigee to the center of the Earth is denoted by r p. Similarly, the apogee is the point at which the satellite is farthest from the Earth, and the distance from the center of the Earth to the apogee is denoted by r a. From the geometry, it is clear that and (4.7) Since a = (r a + r p )/2, a can be interpreted as the mean distance of the orbit from the center of the Earth. The amount by which an ellipse deviates from a circle is quantified by the eccentricity, e, which has values between zero (corresponding to a circle) and one (corresponding to an infinitely thin ellipse). The eccentricity is proportional to the distance between the foci, and is given by (4.8) THE BASICS OF SATELLITE ORBITS 27

10 or (4.9) Most satellites are in orbits that are roughly circular, so that it is possible to talk about the altitude of the satellite. As an example, consider an orbit with an altitude at perigee (h p ) and apogee (h a ) of 500 and 800 kilometers, respectively. In this case, r p (= h p + R e ) and r a (= h a + R e ) differ only by about 4%, and the eccentricity is It can also be shown that and (4.10) Finally, conservation of angular momentum of the satellite requires that r a V a = r p V p, where V a and V p are the speeds of the satellite at apogee and perigee, respectively. From this it follows that (4.11) The speed of a satellite at a point on an elliptical orbit depends on its altitude h at that point, and is given by 7 ( ) ( ) (4.12) This reduces to Equation 4.2 for circular orbits, since in that case a = h + R e, the radius of the orbit. This equation shows that a satellite on an elliptical orbit moves faster when it is closer to the Earth (near perigee) and more slowly when it is farther from the Earth (near apogee). Kepler showed, in the early 1600s, that a satellite moves in such a way that a line drawn from the center of the Earth to the satellite sweeps out equal areas in equal time. This general property is a straightforward consequence of conservation of angular momentum. The period of an elliptical orbit is 8 P (4.13) which is Equation 4.5 with the radius r = (h + R e ) of the circular orbit replaced by the semimajor axis a of the ellipse. 7. David Vallado, Fundamentals of Astrodynamics and Applications, 2nd ed. (El Segundo, CA: Microcosm Press, 2001), Vallado, THE PHYSICS OF SPACE SECURITY

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