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NASA Facts Orbits and Revolutions

# NASA Facts Orbits and Revolutions

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NASA Facts booklet on the mechanics of spaceflight.
NASA Facts booklet on the mechanics of spaceflight.

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12/13/2012

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AN
EDUCATIONAL
PUBLICATION
OF
THE
NATIONAL
AERONAUTICS
AND
SPACE
SCIENCE SERIES
SR.
HIGH
SCHOOLPHYSICS
S-7/3-68
When a body in space is moving about a primarybody, such as the earth, under the influence of gravi-tational force alone, its path is called its
orbit.
(Figure
1)
If a spacecraft is traveling along a closedpath with respect to the primary body, its orbit willbe a circle or an ellipse. Perfectly circular orbits arenot achieved in practice. However the ellipse, as onelearns in analytical geometry, approaches a circlewhen the eccentricity becomes small. The orbits ofthe manned satellites launched by
NASA
in the Mer-cury and Gemini programs were nearly circular
-
they were ellipses with very small eccentricity. Theplanets, with the sun as the primary body, also follownearly circular orbits. When a satellite makes a fulltrip in orbit around its primary body,
it
is said tocomplete
a
revolution,
and the time required istermed its
period,
or
period
of
revolution.
If an observer is measuring the period, the meas-urement that he gets will depend upon his point ofreference. If he were located far out in space, he
Figure
1

Figure
2.
Relative positions of satellite and observer at beginning and endofsynodic period
could visualize the orbit of the spacecraft against thebackground of fixed stars, and determine the periodby timing the interval between successive passagesover some point in that background. His measure-ment would then indicate the time needed to makeone complete transit of the ellipse and would becalled the
sidereal
period of revolution. The word
sidereal
means “of or relating to the stars.” Thesidereal period is not affected in any way by therotation of the earth under the satellite.Let us suppose, however, that the observer is notout in space but is standing on the equator, with thesatellite in
a
low earth orbit moving directly eastabove the equator. He uses his own position as thereference point for measuring the period. Then whenthe satellite has passed through one completeellipse,
it
will be behind the observer because therotation of the earth will have carried him a distanceeastward. The satellite will be over the observeragain only after
it
has traveled an
dis-tance eastward. The period as now measured by theobserver will obviously be greater than the siderealperiod.
It
is called the
synodic
period.The word
synodic
refers to a meeting or conjunc-tion.
At
the beginning of the period, the position ofthe spacecraft over the observer results in a certaingrouping or meeting of the earth, spacecraft, andsun.
At
the end of the period the spacecraft will beover the observer again, and this same grouping ormeeting will be repeated.In practice, very few satellites are placed in equa-torial orbits. Most orbits are inclined at an angle tothe equator, as shown
in
Figure
2.
In
the case of aninclined orbit, the spacecraft will not make succes-sive passes over the observer. The observer moveswith the earth on
a
circle in a plane parallel to theplane of the equator, while the spacecraft movesthrough an ellipse in a plane inclined to the plane ofthe equator. Thus the point at which the spacecraftpasses over the observer’s longitude changes witheach pass. For an inclined orbit, the time elapsingbetween two consecutive passes over the referencelongitude is the synodic period.In day-to-day operations, the practice arose
of
referring to the synodic periods simply as revolu-tions and the sidereal periods as orbits. The readerwill find this terminology used in news accounts.Thus, astronauts Borman and Lovell completed
206
revolutions and
220
orbits during the 14-day rnis-sion of Gemini
VII.

If the spacecraft is orbiting in an easterly direc-tion, the same as the earth's rotation, the orbit issaid to be
and the synodic period isgreater than the sidereal period. If the spacecraft isrevolving in
a
westerly direction, opposite to theearth's rotation, the orbit is said to be
In this case the eastward motion of the observercauses him to meet the satellite before
it
has com-pleted a full transit of the ellipse, and the synodicperiod is therefore less than the sidereal period.
All
manned space flights launched to date by theUnited States have been placed in posigrade orbitsthe synodic and sidereal
gure
3
of
a
is found by averaging the apogee and perigeedistances as measured from the
center
of the earth.The apogee distance is the farthest distance of thespacecraft from the earth, while the perigee dis-tance is the nearest. (Readers who have studiedanalytical geometry will recognize that
a
is the semi-major axis of the ellipse.) The reader can find adiscussion of
G
and M, and of how they are meas-ured, by referring to standard physics textbooks.If our units of measurement are the statute milefor distance and the second for time, the numericalvalue of GM for orbits about the earth is
9.56
(lo4).
We shall use this value, since most news reports ofspacecraft orbits are given in English units. (If oneuses metric units, he will have other values for
a
and GM, but the computed length of the period willbethe sidereal period of a satellite withan average altitude above the earth of
100
miles.in an elliptical orbit for which thepogee and perigee altitudes
is
100
e average radius of the earth
is
3960
miles,
a
=
3960
+
100
=
4060.
hen
4)
The
solution
is easily completed through the use
of