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Astronautics Primer

by

Based on

Understanding Space: An

Introduction to Astronautics

Copyright 1996 McGraw-Hill Inc.

by

COPYRIGHT NOTICE

Astronautics. This primer was adapted from the book by Jerry Jon Sellers and Wiley J.

Larson. Analytical Graphics, Inc. retains copyright for this Primer. It is illegal to

reproduce this material without permission.

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STK Astronautics Primer

OBJECTIVE

The objective of this primer is to provide you with a fundamental reference for key

concepts in astronautics, including:

♦ History

♦ Dynamics

♦ Orbital mechanics

♦ Orbital elements

♦ Orbit propagation

♦ Ground tracks

♦ Satellite access

Jerry Jon Sellers was born in Harlan, Iowa. He has worked over 13 years at various

astronautics assignments including the NASA Johnson Space Center, where he

worked in Space Shuttle Mission Control (guidance and navigation) and the U.S. Air

Force Academy where he served on the faculty of the Department of Astronautics. He

was a distinguished graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1984 and has

earned a Master’s Degree in Physical Science from the University of Houston, Clear

Lake, a Master’s Degree in Aeronautics and Astronautics from Stanford University

and a Ph.D. in Satellite Engineering from the University of Surrey, UK. He currently

works as an international research and development liaison officer in London, UK,

and continues to write and consult on space mission analysis and design.

CONTENTS

Stepping Into Space

The big picture of why space is important and how the pieces fit together

Exploring Space

Some early “explorers” who’ve shaped our current understanding of orbits

An Introduction to Orbit Motion

Key concepts necessary for understanding orbit motion

Describing Orbits

Understanding orbital elements (two-line element sets), ground tracks and how they relate

to space missions

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Predicting Orbits

The “nuts and bolts” of predicting real-world satellite motion using orbit propagators

Satellite Access

The how, when and where of links between ground stations and satellites

Recommended Reading

Other great astronautics references

Since the dawn of the Space Age only a few decades ago, we have come to rely more

and more on satellites for a variety of needs. Daily weather forecasts, instantaneous

world-wide communication, and a constant ability to keep an eye on not-so-friendly

neighbors are all examples of space technology that we’ve come to take for granted.

The purpose of this brief astronautics primer is to provide the reader with a

conceptual overview of important topics in orbital mechanics. Understanding these

key concepts will enhance your insight into the science behind Satellite Took Kit and

better equip you to apply these concepts to practical problems in space. We’ll begin

with a brief overview of space, space missions and space history. Then we’ll get into

the details of orbital mechanics to see how you can use STK to plot your path to the

stars.

Getting into space is dangerous and expensive. So why bother? Space offers several

compelling advantages for modern society

♦ A universal perspective—from space we have a clear view of the heavens,

unobscured by the atmosphere

♦ A unique environment—free-fall and abundant resources make space the

true final frontier

Global Perspective

Space offers a global perspective. As you can see in Figure 1, the higher you are, the

more you can see. For thousands of years, kings and rulers took advantage of this

fact by putting lookout posts atop the tallest mountains to survey more of their realm

and fend off would-be attackers. Throughout history, many battles have been fought

to “take the high ground.” Space takes this quest for greater perspective to its

ultimate end. From the vantage point of space, we can view large parts of the Earth’s

surface. Orbiting satellites can thus serve as “eyes in the sky” to provide a variety of

useful services.

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Figure 1: Global perspective. From space, satellites can observe large-scale features

on the Earth, track weather patterns, monitor the environment and view widely separated

points simultaneously, allowing them to communicate.

Universal Perspective

Space offers a clear view of the heavens. When we look at stars in the night sky, we

see their characteristic twinkle. This twinkle, caused by the blurring of “starlight” as it

passes through the atmosphere, is known as scintillation. Not only is the light blurred,

but some of it is blocked or attenuated altogether. This attenuation is frustrating for

astronomers who need access to all the regions of the spectrum to fully explore the

universe. By placing observatories in space, we can sit above the atmosphere and

gain an unobscured view of the universe, as depicted in Figure 2. The Hubble Space

Telescope and the Gamma Ray Observatory are armed with sensors operating far

beyond the range of human senses. Already, results from these instruments are

revolutionizing our understanding of the cosmos.

atmosphere. Astronomers don’t like the “twinkle” of star light. Some wavelengths are

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STK Astronautics Primer

completely blocked. Space-based astronomy opens the door to a whole new perspective on

the universe.

A Unique Environment

♦ Abundant resources—solar energy and minerals

certain new metal alloys, for example, we must blend two or more metals in just the

right proportion. Unfortunately, gravity tends to pull the heavier metal to the bottom,

making a uniform mixture difficult to obtain. But space offers the solution. A

manufacturing plant in orbit is literally falling toward Earth but never hitting it. This

is a condition known as free-fall (NOT zero gravity). In free-fall there are no contact

forces on an object, so it is said to be weightless. Unencumbered by the weight felt on

the Earth’s surface, factories in orbit can create exotic new metals for computers or

other advanced technologies, as well as for promising new pharmaceutical products to

battle disease on Earth.

Figure 3: Early free-fall manufacturing. In the 16th century, Italian weapons makers

developed a secret way of making lead shot for muskets. By dropping liquid lead from a

“shot tower,” they found near-perfect spheres would form as the molten lead cooled and

hardened in free fall.

Space also offers abundant resources. While some on Earth argue about how to carve

the pie of Earth’s resources into smaller and smaller pieces, others have argued that

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STK Astronautics Primer

example, is known to be rich in oxygen and aluminum. The oxygen could be used as

rocket propellant and for humans to breathe. Aluminum is an important metal for

various industrial uses. These resources, coupled with the human drive to explore,

mean the sky is truly the limit!

Space Applications

Let’s look at some important application of space that affect all of our lives today.

Communications Satellites

Science/Science Fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke first proposed putting satellites into

orbits with periods of 24 hours, 36,000 km above the equator, exactly matching the

rotation rate of the Earth. These geostationary orbits could serve as communication

hubs to link together remote parts of the planet. With the launch of the first

experimental communications satellite, Echo I, into Earth orbit in 1960, Clarke’s

fanciful idea showed promise of becoming reality. Although Echo I was little more

than a reflective balloon in low-Earth orbit, radio signals were bounced off it,

demonstrating that space could be used to broaden our horizons of communication.

An explosion of technology to exploit this idea quickly followed.

Satellites are now used for a large percentage of commercial and government

communications and for most domestic cable television. Through satellite technology,

relief workers can now stay in constant contact with their organizations, enabling

them to better distribute aid to refugees hungry for food. In addition, our modern

military now relies almost totally on satellites to communicate with forces deployed

world-wide. Without satellites, global communication as we know it today would not

be possible.

Satellites operating from the global perspective of space have also made possible the

science of remote sensing. Remote sensing is the act of observing Earth and other

objects from space. For decades, military “spy satellites” have kept tabs on the

activities of potential adversaries using remote-sensing technology. This same

technology has been adapted for civilian uses such as

♦ monitoring Earth’s environment

♦ forecasting the weather

♦ managing resources

Satellites can now “spy” on crops, ocean currents, and natural resources to aid

farmers, resource managers, and planners on Earth. In countries where the failure of

a harvest may mean the difference between bounty and starvation, spacecraft have

helped planners manage scarce resources and head off potential disasters before

insects or other blights could wipe out an entire crop. Weather forecasting is a further

application of remote-sensing technology—one we’ve all come to rely on. Overall, we’ve

come to rely more and more on the ability to monitor and map our entire planet. As

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STK Astronautics Primer

Satellites can now “spy” on crops, ocean currents, and natural resources to aid

farmers, resource managers, and planners on Earth. In countries where the failure of

a harvest may mean the difference between bounty and starvation, spacecraft have

helped planners manage scarce resources and head off potential disasters before

insects or other blights could wipe out an entire crop. Weather forecasting is a further

application of remote-sensing technology—one we’ve all come to rely on. Overall, we’ve

come to rely more and more on the ability to monitor and map our entire planet. As

the pressure builds to better manage scarce resources and assess environmental

damage, we’ll call upon remote-sensing spacecraft to do even more.

Figure 4: Satellite remote sensing. From the vantage point of space, we can plan

urban development and plot the course of dangerous storms.

Space-based Navigation

Early seafarers looked to the stars to guide their way. Modern seafarers look only as

far as satellites in Earth orbit. Systems such as the Global Positioning System (GPS),

developed by the U.S. military, tell you where you are, in what direction you’re

heading and how fast you’re going.

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STK Astronautics Primer

Figure 5: Global Positioning System (GPS). GPS allows Earth-based users armed

with a simple, hand-held receiver to triangulate from a constellation of 24 satellites. They

can then determine their location to within a few meters and velocity, and a few m/sec

anywhere on Earth.

Exploration

Perhaps the most exciting missions are those which explore the unknown. Missions

such as the Magellan spacecraft that orbited Venus with a powerful radar to peel back

the clouds of this once mysterious planet are a good example. A computer-enhanced

image taken by Magellan is shown in Figure 6. These types of missions push back the

boundaries of human knowledge, giving us new insight into planetary formation,

weather and other important processes at work back here on Earth.

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STK Astronautics Primer

Magellan spacecraft pierced the thick clouds of Venus, giving us the first details of the

planet’s surface. (Photo courtesy of NASA.)

Space missions seem complex, and they are to a certain extent, but if you look at

them logically, you’ll see many similarities. Let’s begin with some key definitions:

♦ Mission Objective - Why we’re going to space and what we’re going to do once

we get there.

♦ Users - The people or systems that use data or services provided by the

satellite or satellites.

♦ Operators -The people who manage and run the mission from the ground.

♦ Mission Operations Concept -How users, operators, ground and space

elements all work together to make a mission successful.

All these come together to form the tangible elements of what is collectively called the

Space Mission Architecture. These elements are depicted in Figure 7; each one is

defined in the subsections following.

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Communications Network

Space Transportation

Payload Bus

Space Operations

Payload

Spacecraft

Figure 7: Space mission architecture. The key to understanding how missions are

built is to look at the space mission architecture that includes these critical elements.

Space Operations

The term space operations encompasses all activities needed to monitor and control

satellites and the other elements that make up a space mission. Space operations are

performed by teams of people located at tracking sites and control centers around the

world.

A spacecraft has two basic parts, a payload (or payloads) and a bus. The payload includes

space-borne people and instruments that perform the primary mission. The spacecraft bus

provides for the care and feeding of the payload—pointing, heating and cooling, structure,

transportation and power. A simple analogy of a spacecraft bus and its payload is a good

old-fashioned school bus, as shown in Figure 8. It contains all of the same types of

systems needed to support a spacecraft.

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STK Astronautics Primer

Horn, radio & driver (Structures)

(communications & data handling)

heater (environment control &

life support )

engine & drive train

Battery & alternator (electrical power) (space transportation)

Passengers

(payload)

Figure 8: The spacecraft “bus.” A spacecraft has all the basic systems found in a

regular school bus.

A trajectory is any path an object follows through space. An orbit is a special type of

repeating trajectory. The simplest way to imagine an orbit is to think of a “racetrack”

around the Earth which satellites “drive” around, as shown in Figure 9.

planet, where the size of the racetrack depends on the velocity of the object in orbit.

Depending on the altitude of the orbit, a satellite has different perspectives on the Earth.

The total fraction of the Earth a satellite can “see” using its onboard sensors is known as

the field of view. The projection of this field of view onto the Earth’s surface creates a

swath width for the sensor as it sweeps around the Earth on its orbit. These two

parameters are illustrated in Figure 10.

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STK Astronautics Primer

field of view

swath width

Figure 10: Field of view and swath width. The height of the orbit and the sensor field

of view dictates the swath width that can be imaged on the ground.

There are a variety of different types of orbits that can be found in a typical space mission,

including parking orbits, transfer orbits and final mission orbits. These are illustrated in

Figure 11.

fin

al parking orbit

or

bit

r orbit

transfe

Figure 11: Orbit types. Different types of orbits include the parking orbit, the transfer

orbit and the final or mission orbit. A satellite normally begins its life in a temporary

parking orbit. From there, an upper stage rocket is used to boost the satellite onto a

transfer orbit. An additional boost places it into the final mission orbit.

Space Transportation

Space transportation includes all of the systems necessary to deliver our spacecraft to its

final mission orbit. Normally, this consists of a booster, such as the Space Shuttle or

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Ariane, an upper stage, such as the Inertial Upper Stage (IUS), and onboard thrusters for

final maneuvers and station keeping. The Space Shuttle, shown in Figure 12, is one type

of complete space transportation system.

Figure 12: The Space Shuttle. Space transportation includes the systems that put the

spacecraft in orbit, keep it there, and rotate and move it if necessary. Space

transportation systems develop the velocity needed to obtain and stay in orbit. Space

boosters are divided into stages that provide incremental changes in velocity and are

then discarded.

Communications Network

A space mission is more than just rockets and satellites. An entire system of ground and

on-orbit assets are needed to track, command and control all aspects of the mission. This

communications network ties together various links needed to deliver bus telemetry and

payload data to operators and users, as shown in Figure 13.

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STK Astronautics Primer

Relay Satellite relay satellite

(TDRS)

primary aircraft

tracking site

mission control center tracking site/users

that holds the mission together. The network ties together space assets, ground

controllers and users in a complex web of links that transfers data among the various

mission element nodes.

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EXPLORING SPACE

Long before rockets and interplanetary probes escaped the Earth’s atmosphere,

people explored the heavens with just their eyes and imagination. Later, with the aid

of telescopes and other instruments, humans continued their struggle to bring order

to the heavens. With order came some understanding and a concept of our place in

the universe. Thousands of years ago, priests of ancient Egypt and Babylon carefully

observed the heavens to plan religious festivals, to control the planting and harvesting

of various crops, and to understand at least partially the realm in which they believed

many of their gods lived. Later, philosophers such as Aristotle and Ptolemy developed

complex theories to explain and predict the motions of the Sun, Moon, planets and

stars.

The theories of Aristotle and Ptolemy dominated the world of astronomy and our

understanding of the heavens well into the 1600s. Combining ancient traditions with

new observations and insights, natural philosophers such as Copernicus and Kepler

offered rival explanations from the 1500s onward. Using their models and Isaac

Newton’s new tools of physics, astronomers in the 1700s and 1800s made several

startling discoveries, including two new planets—Uranus and Neptune. Let’s briefly

explore some of these major contributors to our early understanding of space and

orbits.

Copernicus

With the Renaissance and humanism came a new emphasis on the accessibility of the

heavens to human thought. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), a Renaissance

humanist and Catholic clergyman, reordered the universe and enlarged man’s

horizons. He placed the Sun at the center of the solar system, as shown in Figure 14,

and had the Earth rotate on its axis once a day while revolving about the Sun once a

year.

Copernicus further observed that, with respect to a viewer located on the Earth, the

planets occasionally appear to back up in their orbits as they move against the

background of the fixed stars. Ptolemy and others resorted to complex combinations

of circles to explain this backward motion of the planets, but Copernicus cleverly

explained that this motion was simply the effect of the Earth overtaking, and being

overtaken by, the planets as they all revolved about the Sun.

However, Copernicus’ heliocentric system had its drawbacks. He couldn’t prove the

Earth moved, and he couldn’t explain why the Earth rotated on its axis while

revolving about the Sun. He also adhered to the Greek tradition that orbits follow

uniform circles, so his geometry was complex and somewhat erroneous. In addition,

Copernicus wrestled with the problem of parallax—the apparent shift in the position

of bodies when viewed from different distances. If the Earth truly revolved about the

Sun, critics observed, a viewer stationed on the Earth should see an apparent shift in

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position of a closer star with respect to its more distant neighbors. Because no one

saw this shift, Copernicus’ Sun-centered system was suspect. In response,

Copernicus speculated that the stars must be at vast distances from the Earth, but

such distances were far too great for most people to contemplate at the time, so this

idea was also widely rejected.

Figure 14: Copernicus redefines the center. Polish astronomer Copernicus reordered

our view of the universe. He promoted a heliocentric (Sun-centered) universe, a simpler,

more symmetric approach with all of the planets in circular orbits about the Sun.

Unfortunately, these ideas were widely rejected because they disputed religious

teachings of his day.

Kepler

Mystery, written before he was age 25, he calculated that the orbit of Mars was not

circular but elliptical. From this work, he developed three important laws of orbit

motion, described in Figures 15 through 17.

st

Figure 15: Kepler’s 1 law. The orbits of the planets are ellipses with the Sun at a

focus.

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Planetary Planetary

motion over Area 1 Area 2 motion over

30 days 30 days

Area 1 = Area 2

Figure 16: Kepler’s 2nd law. The orbits of the planets sweep out equal areas in equal

time.

Average distance

Figure 17: Kepler’s 3rd law. The square of the orbit period—the time it takes to go

around once—is proportional to the cube of the average distance to the Sun.

Galileo

optical device that could magnify objects so they would appear to be closer and

brighter than when seen with the naked eye. Building a telescope that could magnify

an image 20 times, Galileo ushered in a new era of space exploration. He made some

startling telescopic observations of the Moon, the planets, and the stars, thereby

attaining stardom in the eyes of his peers and potential patrons. Observing the

planets, Galileo noticed that Jupiter had four moons or satellites (a word coined by

Kepler in 1611) that moved about it. This disproved Aristotle’s claim that everything

revolved about the Earth.

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Galileo also took on Aristotle’s physics. He rolled a sphere down a grooved ramp and

used a water clock to measure the time it took to reach the bottom. He repeated the

experiment with heavier and lighter spheres, as well as steeper and shallower ramps,

and cleverly extended his results to objects in free-fall. Through these experiments,

Galileo discovered, contrary to Aristotle, that all objects fall at the same rate

regardless of their weight, as shown in Figure 18.

Galileo further contradicted Aristotle as to why objects, once in motion, tend to keep

going. Aristotle held that objects in “violent” motion, such as arrows shot from bows,

keep going only as long as something is physically in touch with them, pushing them

onward. Once this push dies out, they resume their natural motion and drop straight

to Earth. Galileo showed that objects in uniform motion keep going unless disturbed

by some outside influence. He wrongly held that this uniform motion was circular,

and he never used the term “inertia.” Nevertheless, we applaud Galileo today for

greatly refining the concept of inertia as we know it today.

Figure 18: Galileo on gravity. Through application of the scientific method, Galileo put

Aristotle’s ideas to the test and proved Aristotle wrong—all objects fall at the same rate.

Newton

started and which Kepler and Galileo had advanced, the terrestrial and heavenly

realms had to be united under one set of natural laws. Isaac Newton (1642–1727)

answered this challenge. Newton was a brilliant natural philosopher and

mathematician who provided a majestic vision of nature’s unity and simplicity. 1665

proved to be Newton’s “miracle year,” in which he significantly advanced the study of

calculus, gravitation, and optics. Extending the groundbreaking work of Galileo in

dynamics, Newton published his three laws of motion and the law of universal

gravitation in the Principia in 1687. With these laws, you could explain and predict

motion not only on Earth but also in tides, comets, moons, planets—in other words,

motion everywhere. Newton’s laws are explained more thoroughly in the next section.

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Orbits are one of the basic elements of any space mission. Understanding a satellite

in motion may at first seem rather intimidating. After all, to fully describe orbital

motion we need some basic physics along with a healthy dose of calculus and

geometry. However, as we’ll see, the complex trajectories of rockets flying into space

aren’t all that different from the paths of baseballs pitched across home plate. In fact,

in most cases, both can be described in terms of the single force pinning you to your

chair right now—gravity.

Armed only with an understanding of this single pervasive force, we can predict,

explain and understand the motion of nearly all objects in space, from baseballs to

entire galaxies. Once we know an object’s position and velocity, as well as the nature

of the local gravitational field, we can predict exactly where the object will be minutes,

hours or even years from now.

Overview

♦ What is a vector?

♦ What is a derivative?

♦ What is an integral good for?

♦ What is the difference between mass, inertia and weight?

♦ What is momentum?

♦ What is energy?

♦ What are Newton’s Laws of Motion?

♦ What is gravity?

♦ OK, forget the math, what is an orbit, really?

♦ How are energy and momentum conserved in an orbit?

Before delving too deeply into a discussion of dynamics, orbital mechanics and

propagators it’s useful to step back and briefly review a bit of math. BUT DON’T

PANIC! This section is designed to simplify a few basic concepts and describe the

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notation used. You should walk away from this section with a “Math Survival Kit”

that will make the rest of this Primer far more useful and enjoyable.

Scalar

A scalar is a quantity that has magnitude only. Speed, energy and temperature

are examples of scalars. None of these quantities has a unique meaning in any

certain direction. A single letter, such as E for Total Mechanical Energy, denotes a

scalar quantity.

Vector

A vector is a quantity that has both magnitude and direction. For example, if I ask

you where you drove in your car, you might answer: “I went south.” But this

wouldn’t tell me much. If I asked “How far?,” and you said “five miles,” I could put

together a better picture. By knowing you drove five miles south, I have both

v

magnitude and direction. A letter with an arrow over it, such as V for the velocity

vector is used to denote a vector quantity.

Unit Vector

A unit vector is a vector having a magnitude of one; it’s used to describe direction

only. For example, if I want to define where north is on a drawing, I could do so

with a unit vector indicating the direction. A letter with a caret or hat over it, such

as I$ for the I-direction denotes a unit vector.

Example

vectors, I$, J$ , K$ . Thus, a typical velocity vector could be written as:

v

. I$ + 21

V = 30 . J$ − 7.4 K$ km / sec

This means the velocity is 3.0 km/sec in the I-direction, 2.1 km/sec in the J-

direction and 7.4 km/sec in the K-direction.

Calculus was developed to analyze changing parameters. Let’s look at how those

changes are described.

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Derivative

another. For example, if you’re traveling north in your car, your position is

changing over time. The rate at which your position changes over time is your

velocity. Thus, if you travel 30 miles north in 30 minutes, your velocity is:

v

v Change in position (R) 30 miles

Velocity = V = = = 60 mph north

Change in time (t) 30 minutes

Several methods are commonly used to denote a vector. In this primer, we use two

types of notation. The first is to represent a derivative as d. So the change in

position over time would be:

v

v dR

V =

dt

We also use a “dot” over a symbol to represent the derivative with respect to time. For

v&

example, R represents the derivative of the position vector or the rate of change of

&&v

position. R is the second derivative of position, or the rate of change of the rate of change

of position (i.e. the acceleration).

Integral

respect to another. If we were to graph both changing parameters, the integral is

the area under the curve. For example, if you drive north at 30 miles per hour for

30 minutes, the integral of this velocity is your new position at the end of the time

(e.g., 15 miles north of where you started). In other words, you add up all the

changes in position over time to get the total change. An integral is the reverse of

a derivative. Because acceleration is the derivative of velocity over time, the

integral of acceleration over time is velocity.

Key Concepts

Mass

Mass is a measure of how much matter or “stuff” an object possesses. For example, a

volleyball and a cannon ball are about the same size, but the cannon ball has far

more mass because it is made of a more dense material.

Inertia

Inertia describes how hard it is to move an object. It is much easier to push a baby

carriage than a bulldozer because the bulldozer, being more massive, has more

inertia.

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Weight

Weight actually describes the force produced by gravity acting on a mass. Your weight

in various situations is illustrated in Figure 19.

Figure 19: Weight. Weight describes a contact force caused by the effect of gravity on

mass. On Earth, your weight is one value. As you move further from the center of the

Earth, say in a penthouse at the top of a 250-mile-high skyscraper, your weight would be

slightly less. In orbit at 250 miles altitude, the gravitational force is still the same;

however, because you are in free-fall and not in contact with the Earth, your weight is

zero. In all cases, mass stays the same.

Momentum

Linear momentum describes the resistance a moving object has to changes in either

direction or speed. The more massive an object, or the faster it is moving, the harder

it is to stop or change its direction of motion. As a result, linear momentum is the

product of the mass and velocity of an object. Momentum for baby carriages and

bulldozers is shown in Figure 20.

m = 25 kg m = 25,000 kg

v= 1000 m/s v = 1 m/s

mv = 25,000 kg-m/s mv= 25,000 kg-m/s

Figure 20: Momentum, bulldozers and baby carriages. Linear momentum is the

product of mass and velocity. For a baby carriage to have the same linear momentum as

a bulldozer, it would have to be traveling at a much higher velocity.

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illustrates, a non-spinning top immediately falls over. However, a spinning top has

angular momentum, which allows it to resist the force of gravity pulling it over (until it

finally slows down due to friction).

angular momentum

Figure 21: Angular momentum. A spinning top has angular momentum which keeps it

pointing upright even when pulled by outside forces such as gravity.

Energy

Potential energy is a function of an object’s position and mass. The greater the height

an object is raised to, the greater its potential energy. An object at the top of a deep

well, as shown in Figure 22, has more potential energy than an object at the bottom of

the well.

PE = 0 at R = infinite

R PE < 0 at R > 0

PE < 0 at R = 0

Figure 22: Potential energy. Because we normally define our coordinate systems as

positive outward from the center of the Earth, we measure potential energy “from the

bottom up.” For example, at the top of a deep well we would say the potential energy is

zero. As we get closer to the bottom of the well, the potential energy is less, or more

negative.

Kinetic energy is a function of an object’s mass and speed. Like momentum, the more

massive an object is or the faster it travels, the more kinetic energy it has. It is this

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Figure 23. This is accomplished by applying the brakes, which turns kinetic energy

into heat (those brakes get hot!).

m = 25,000 kg

v = 1 m/s

1/2 mv2 = 12,500 kg-m/s2

Figure 23: Newton’s 1st law. The kinetic energy of a bulldozer moving at only 1 m/s is

12,500 kg-m/s2.

Newton’s Laws

A body remains at rest or in constant motion unless acted upon by external forces.

In other words, if you were to pitch a baseball, it should continue on its path, in a

straight line forever, unless disturbed by an outside force such as gravity or air

resistance.

The time rate of change of an object’s momentum is equal to the applied force.

Change(momentum)

= Force Applied

Change(time)

Recall, momentum is the product of mass and velocity. Thus, as long as mass

stays constant (which it normally does as long as rockets aren’t firing) this

equation can be reduced to:

F = ma

or:

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STK Astronautics Primer

The significance of this relationship can be felt every time you hit the brakes in you car.

The more force you apply (the harder you hit the brakes) the faster you stop (the faster

you decelerate). This principle is illustrated in Figure 24.

25,000 N

1 m/s

stops in 1

second

6.9 N

1 m/s

stops in 1 hour

Figure 24: Newton’s 2nd law. Force is proportional to acceleration (or deceleration). A

25,000 N force is needed to stop a 1 m/s bulldozer in 1 second, while much smaller 6.9

N force would take 1 hour to bring it to a stop.

For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. This basic principle can

be illustrated by two roller-skating astronautics, as shown in Figure 25.

Figure 25: Newton’s 3rd law. If two people on roller skates push against each other,

they both move backward. Their acceleration is proportional to their mass.

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STK Astronautics Primer

The force of gravity between two bodies is proportional to the product of the

masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.

This is illustrated in Figure 26.

F

g m

F 2

g

m

1

Figure 26: Gravitational attraction. Two masses in space each exert a force on the

other. The magnitude of this force depends on the product of their masses and the

square of the distance between them.

GM1 M 2

Fgravity =

R2

where

In other words, the more mass an object has, the more gravitational force it

generates. Furthermore, the farther apart two objects are, the less the force is, in

fact, the force decreases with the square of the distance as illustrated in Figure 27.

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STK Astronautics Primer

R

2R

F

g m Fg /4 m

F 2 2

g

F /4

g

m

1 m

1

Figure 27: Gravity and distance. The force of gravitational attraction decreases with

the square of the distance (e.g., if you double the distance, the force decreases by one

fourth).

What exactly is gravity? The study of physics is still grappling to reconcile the

force of gravity with the other fundamental forces of nature. Already, extremely

weak “gravity waves” have been detected from distant galaxies. More sensitive

instruments are being built to understand and quantify this mysterious force.

How strong is gravity? Let’s look at the Earth-Moon system. The force of gravity

between the Earth and Moon is 1.98 x 1020 Newtons! To put this into perspective,

the Space Shuttle generates about 28 million Newtons thrust at lift-off. The Earth-

Moon gravity force is more than one trillion times as great as that of the Shuttle!

Regardless of what gravity really is, we know it’s a force that affects anything with

mass (and that’s pretty much everything!). While Galileo right in that the

gravitational force is greater on heavier objects than lighter objects, he was wrong

in predicting the affect this would have on the rate at which they fall. The

acceleration of an object in a gravitational field is independent of its mass.

Figure 28: All things fall at the same rate. It is important to note that all things

accelerate at the same rate within a gravitational field. For example, if you drop a

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STK Astronautics Primer

hammer and a feather, both objects impact the ground at the same time (neglecting air

resistance). Of course, Galileo predicted this. Astronaut Dave Scott proved this with an

experiment on the Moon. He dropped a hammer and a feather at the same time. Both hit

the ground at the same instant (there is no air resistance on the Moon)!

What is an orbit? In the simplest sense, orbits are a type of “racetrack” in space that a

satellite “drives” around.

Figure 29: Orbits as racetracks. The simplest way to think of orbits is as giant, fixed

“racetracks” on which spacecraft “drive” around the Earth.

But what makes these racetracks? Before diving into a complicated explanation, let’s

begin with a simple experiment that illustrates, conceptually, how orbits work. To do

this, we’ll arm ourselves with a bunch of baseballs and travel to the top of a tall

mountain. Imagine you were standing on top of this mountain prepared to pitch

baseballs to the east. As the balls sail off the summit, what would you see? The

baseballs would follow a curved path before hitting the ground. Why is this? The force

of your throw causes them to move outward, but the force of gravity pulls them down.

Therefore, the “compromise” shape of the baseball’s path is a curve.

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STK Astronautics Primer

the simple motion of a satellite. Naturally, the harder the baseballs are thrown, the

further they travel before hitting the ground.

As Figure 30 illustrates, the faster you throw the balls, the farther they travel before

hitting the ground. This could lead you to conclude that the faster you throw them,

the longer it takes before they hit the ground. But is this really the case? Let’s try

another experiment to see. As you watch, two astronauts, standing on flat ground,

release baseballs. The first one simply drops a ball from a fixed height. At exactly the

same time, a second astronaut throws an identical ball horizontally as hard as

possible. What do you see? If the second astronaut throws a fast ball, it travels out

about 20 m (60 ft.) or so before it hits the ground. However, the ball dropped by the

first astronaut hits the ground at exactly the same time as the pitched ball, as Figure

31 shows!

Figure 31: Motion and gravity. Two astronauts each have a baseball held at the same

height above the ground. If the first astronaut drops her baseball while the second

astronaut throws his, both baseballs hit the ground at exactly the same time. Gravity acts

on both baseballs in the same way, independent of their horizontal motion.

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STK Astronautics Primer

How can this be? To understand this seeming paradox, we must recognize that, in

this case, the motion in one direction is independent of motion in another. Thus,

while the second astronaut’s ball moves horizontally at 30 km/hr (20 m.p.h.) or so,

it’s still falling at the same rate as the first ball. This rate is the constant gravitational

acceleration of all objects near the Earth’s surface: 9.798 m/s2. Thus, they hit the

ground at the same time. The only difference is that the pitched ball, because it has

horizontal velocity, manages to travel some distance before intercepting the ground.

Now let’s return to the top of our mountain and start throwing our baseballs faster

and faster to see what happens. No matter how fast we throw them, the balls still fall

at the same rate. However, as we increase their horizontal velocity, they’re able to

travel farther and farther before they hit the ground. Because the Earth is basically

spherical in shape, something interesting happens. The Earth’s spherical shape

causes the surface to drop approximately 5 m for every 8 km we travel horizontally

across it, as shown in Figure 32.

8 km

5m

Figure 32: Our spherical Earth. We know the Earth is a nearly perfect sphere. For

every 8 km of horizontal distance, the Earth curves down about 5 m. In other words, if

you could lay an 8 km long board tangent to the Earth at one end, at the other end it

would be 5 m off the ground.

So, if we were able to throw a baseball at 8 km/s (assuming no air resistance), its

path would exactly match the rate of curvature of the Earth. That is, gravity would

pull it down about 5 m for every 8 km it travels, and it would continue around the

Earth at a constant height. If we don’t remember to duck, it will hit us in the back of

the head about 85 minutes later. (Actually, because of the rotation of the Earth, it

would miss your head.) A ball thrown at a speed slower than 8 km/s falls faster than

the Earth curves away beneath it.

Only at exactly one particular velocity do we get a circular trajectory. Any slower than

that and our trajectory impacts the Earth at some point. If we were to project this

shape into the Earth, we’d find the trajectory we see is really just a piece of an ellipse.

If we throw the ball a bit harder than the circular velocity, we also obtain an ellipse.

An object in orbit is literally falling around the Earth but, because of its horizontal

velocity, it never quite impacts the ground. If we throw the ball too hard, it leaves the

Earth altogether on a parabolic or hyperbolic trajectory, never to return.

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STK Astronautics Primer

hyperbola

parabola

circle

ellipse

Figure 33: Baseballs in orbit. If we throw a baseball fast, but not quite fast enough,

eventually the ball will impact the ground (perhaps even on the other side of the Earth)

like an ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile). If we throw it at just the right speed,

gravity will cause the ball to fall 5 m for every 8 km of horizontal distance traveled. But,

since the Earth also curves down 5 m for each 8 km of horizontal distance, the ball will

stay at same the instantaneous height above the ground. We call this a circular orbit. If

we throw it faster than the circular orbit speed, the ball will be in an elliptical-shaped orbit.

If we throw the ball faster yet, it will escape the Earth’s gravity altogether on a parabolic or

hyperbolic trajectory.

Thus, it is important to note that no matter how hard we throw, our trajectory

resembles either a circle, ellipse, parabola or hyperbola. These four shapes are called

conic sections. Why conic sections? Because these are the shapes we get by slicing

through a cone with a plane at different angles, as illustrated in Figure 34.

Figure 34: Conic sections. The four basic conic sections: circle, ellipse, hyperbola and

parabola.

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STK Astronautics Primer

So how fast how fast do we have to throw our baseball to put it into a circular orbit?

Let’s play with some math. The velocity of a satellite in a circular orbit can be found

using:

GM Earth

Vcircular =

R

where

Thus, at the surface of the Earth, the velocity in a circular orbit would be 7.9 km/sec

(17,600 mph)! In other words, to move into a circular orbit that stays just above the

surface of the Earth (ignoring air drag) you’d have to throw the baseball at 17,600

mph. Notice that the circular orbit speed depends on your distance from the center of

the Earth. The lower you are, the faster you must travel to achieve a circular orbit.

Now that we’ve looked at the simple geometry of an orbit, we can consider how

conservation of energy and momentum affects the velocity of satellites. Gravity is a

conservation force, which means that an object moving in a gravitational field doesn’t

lose any energy through friction or heat, etc. Additionally, total energy is constant, or:

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STK Astronautics Primer

Maximum PE Maximum PE

KE=0 KE=0

Max KE

Min PE

PE+KE=constant

Figure 35: Trading kinetic and potential energy. The conservation of energy

(Potential Energy + Kinetic Energy = Constant) is illustrated by a simple swing.

Neglecting losses from friction, the total energy of the astronaut on the swing is constant.

At the low point in the swing, speed (kinetic energy) is greatest and potential energy is

lowest. As you swing, you trade kinetic energy (speed) for potential energy (height) with

the sum of the two constant.

When applied to an orbit, the same principle applies. Total energy must be conserved,

thus the orbit speed varies throughout the orbit as kinetic energy is traded for

potential energy. A satellite travels fastest at perigee—the lowest point in the orbit—

and slowest at apogee—the highest point in the orbit. This is shown in Figure 36.

high kinetic

low kinetic energy

energy

apogee perigee

energy energy

Figure 36: Energy conservation in orbit. As a satellite moves closer to the Earth in an

orbit, it must speed up to conserve total energy. As it gets further away, the satellite

trades kinetic energy for potential energy and slows down.

Angular momentum is also always conserved. Ice skaters use this principle to speed

up or slow down as they spin, as shown in Figure 37. Just like a spinning ice skater,

an orbit has angular momentum. Because angular momentum is a vector quantity,

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STK Astronautics Primer

the direction as well as the magnitude of this momentum stays the same. As a result,

even though the Earth rotates under the orbit and the Earth (and the orbit along with

it) moves around the Sun, the orbit itself stays fixed in respect to a stationary

reference.

Figure 37: Conservation of angular momentum. Ice skaters use this principle to

speed up or slow down as they spin. When their arms are extended, the moment of

inertia is low, so they spin more slowly. As they draw their arms in, the moment of inertia

decreases and the spin rate increases to keep total angular momentum constant.

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STK Astronautics Primer

DESCRIBING ORBITS

Overview

♦ What is a coordinate system?

♦ What is the most common coordinate system used for satellites?

♦ What do all those Greek letters tell me about an orbit?

Ground Tracks

♦ How do those squiggly lines on a map represent the path of a satellite?

To be valid, Newton’s laws must be expressed in an inertial frame of reference,

meaning a frame that is not accelerating. Any reference frame is just a collection of

definitions that allow us to describe positions and velocities in a more meaningful

way. For example, if I simply told you a car is traveling south, you wouldn’t have very

much information. But if I first tell you that our a reference frame is centered on

Washington, DC, and then tell you that the car is 30 miles east of the city traveling

south at 60 mph, you’d know something far more useful.

extensive use of vectors. We use vectors because we want to keep track of the

information contained in a particular parameter. Specifically, a vector is a parameters

having both magnitude and direction. For example, 60 mph tells you speed

(magnitude) without direction. But 60 mph south tells you both magnitude and

direction. In defining coordinate systems, we are sometimes only interested in

direction. In that case, we use unit vectors defined to have a specific direction and a

magnitude of 1.

Cartesian coordinate systems are laid out with three orthogonal unit vectors—vectors

at right angles to each other. For example, if the origin of a coordinate system were

chosen to be in one corner of a room, the floor would be the fundamental plane. We

could then describe the position of every piece of furniture in the room with respect to

this system. Such a collection of unit vectors allows us to establish the components of

other vectors in 3-D space.

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STK Astronautics Primer

origin, a fundamental plane, a principle direction, and a third axis, as shown in

Figure 38. The origin defines a physically identifiable starting point for the coordinate

system. The other two parameters fix the orientation of the frame. The fundamental

plane contains two axes of the system. Once we know the plane, we can define a

direction perpendicular to that plane. The unit vector in this direction at the origin is

one axis. Next, we need a principle direction within the plane. Again, we choose

something that is physically significant, like a star. Now that we have two directions,

the principle direction and an axis perpendicular to the fundamental plane, we can

find the third axis using the right-hand rule. The right-hand rule can be demonstrated

by pointing the thumb of your right hand in the direction perpendicular to the

fundamental plane. With you fingers pointing in the principle direction, curl your

fingers 90° so that your thumb is pointing in the direction of the third axis.

& perpendicular to it

fundamental

plane

origin origin

fundamental

fundamental plane

plane

origin 3rd axis, found

origin using right-hand

rule

Figure 38: Defining a coordinate system.

Remember—coordinate systems are defined to make our lives easier. If we choose the

correct coordinate system, developing the equations of motion can be simple. If we

choose the wrong system, it can be nearly impossible.

For Earth-orbiting spacecraft, we’ll choose a tried-and-true system that we know

makes solving the equations of motion relatively easy. We call this system the

geocentric-equatorial coordinate system, shown in Figure 39. Here’s how it’s defined:

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STK Astronautics Primer

Origin

Fundamental plane

plane is the direction of the north pole.

Principle direction

Vernal equinox direction, , or the vector pointing to the first point of Aries. The

vernal equinox direction points at the zodiac constellation Aries and is found by

drawing a line from the Earth to the Sun on the first day of spring. While this

direction may not seem “convenient” to you, it’s significant to the astronomers who

originally defined the system. Unfortunately, the vernal equinox direction is not

perfectly constant. The Earth’s orbit precesses around the Sun and the Sun is moving

through the galaxy. Therefore, exactly when this direction is defined is extremely

important for the definition of the system. We can use two ways of defining these

directions. The first is to use the mean or average direction at some point in time. The

other is to use the true position at exactly one specific point in time. Various

combinations of these definitions using different dates gives us several possibilities for

coordinate systems used in STK:

J2000

Defines the mean vernal equinox direction and mean Earth rotation axis on

January 1 of the year 2000 at approximately 12:00:00.00 GMT.

Mean of date

Defines the mean vernal equinox direction and mean Earth rotation axis at the

orbit epoch time (the time for which the orbital elements being used is true).

Mean of epoch

Defines the mean vernal equinox direction and mean Earth rotation axis at the

coordinate epoch time (time at which the coordinate system being used is defined).

True of date

Defines the true vernal equinox direction and true Earth rotation axis at exactly

the orbit epoch time specified.

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True of epoch

Defines the true vernal equinox direction and true Earth rotation axis at the

coordinate epoch time specified.

B1950

Defines the mean vernal equinox direction and mean Earth rotation axis at the

beginning of the Besselian year 1950. It corresponds to 31 December 1949 at

22:09:07.20 Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

Defines mean vernal equinox direction and true Earth rotation axis for the orbit

epoch time specified.

Third axis

The third axis of the geocentric-equatorial coordinate system is found using the right-

hand rule.

^

K

^I ^

J

Figure 39: The geocentric-equatorial coordinate system. The system is defined by:

u Origin - Center of Earth; u Fundamental Plane - Equals equatorial plane;

u Perpendicular to Plane - north pole; u Principle Direction - vernal equinox direction.

Three pieces of information are needed to fix any point in space; collectively, they’re

r

known as an object’s position vector, R . Three more pieces of information describe its

r

velocity vector, V . One additional item, time, tells us when the information provided

is valid. These elements are know as Cartesian elements. While it is often convenient

to describe orbit motion using simply position and velocity vectors in a Cartesian

coordinate system, especially for computational work, these vectors provide us little

insight into the orbit itself. For this reason, astronomers long ago developed orbital

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elements. Orbital elements give us a short-hand way of expressing orbit size, shape

and orientation, allowing us to tell at a glance the application for a given orbit. This

section describes the Classical orbital elements, which are sometimes referred to as

the Keplerian elements and are attributed originally to Kepler himself. Variations on

these elements, the commonly used two-line element sets, are described in a later

section.

Orbit Size

How big is an orbit? This depends on how fast we “throw” our satellite into orbit. The

faster we throw, the more energy an orbit has, and the bigger it is. We express the size

of an orbit in terms of its semimajor axis, a., as defined in Figure 40.

apogee perigee

2a = major axis

a = semimajor axis

Figure 40: Semimajor axis. The major axis of an elliptical orbit is the distance between

the point of closest approach (perigee) and furthest point (apogee). Semimajor axis is

one-half this distance.

We can express the semimajor axis in terms of the distance from the center of the

Earth to apogee (Rapogee) and perigee (Rperigee). Perigee is the point in an orbit that is

closest to the Earth. Apogee is the point where it is furthest away (apogee is undefined

for a parabolic or hyperbolic trajectory). The semimajor axis can be found using:

Rapogee + R perigee

a=

2

where

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STK Astronautics Primer

The orbit’s period, P (i.e., how long the satellite takes to travel around the orbit one

time), is proportional to the orbit size:

a3

P = 2π

GM Earth

For example, a typical Space Shuttle orbit at an altitude of a few hundred kilometers

has a period of about 90 minutes. It orbits the Earth about 16 times each day! For

communications satellites in geosynchronous orbit at an altitude of 35,780 km, the

period is exactly 24 hours.

Orbit Shape

The less circular an orbit is, the more eccentric or “imperfect” it is. Eccentricity, e,

describes the shape of orbit with respect to that of a circle.

e>1

e=1 hyperbola

parabola

ellipse

circle

0<e<1 e=0

orbits have an eccentricity of less than 1. A parabolic orbit has an eccentricity of exactly

1. Hyperbolic orbits (or trajectories) have eccentricities of greater than 1. In practice, a

perfectly circular or parabolic orbit cannot be achieved.

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Orbit Orientation

How the orbit is tilted with respect to the equator is called its inclination, i. An orbit

that stays directly over the equator has an inclination of 0° and is called an equatorial

orbit. An orbit that goes directly over the north and south poles must have an

inclination of exactly 90° and is called a polar orbit.

0° = i = 180° Equatorial

i=0o

(moves in direction of

Earth’s rotation)

ascending

node

(moves against the

direction of Earth’s

rotation) ascending

node

We measure how an orbit is twisted by locating its ascending node, the point where

the satellite crosses the equator moving south to north. This point is referenced to the

I-direction, which points in the Vernal Equinox direction. The angle between the I-

direction and the ascending node is called the right ascension of the ascending node,

RAAN, Ω.

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STK Astronautics Primer

^

K

lp lane

a toria

equ

Ω

ascending

node

^

J

^

i

Figure 42: Right Ascension of the ascending node (RAAN), Ω , is the angular

distance from the vernal equinox direction to the ascending node. The ascending node

of an orbit is the point where it crosses the equatorial plane from south to north.

We describe the orbit’s orientation by locating perigee with respect to the ascending

node. This angle is called the argument of perigee, ω; it is measured positive in the

direction of satellite motion.

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STK Astronautics Primer

^

K

lp lane

a toria

equ

ω

ascending

node

^

J

^

i

Figure 43: Argument of perigee. The argument of perigee, ω, is the angular distance

between the ascending node and perigee.

another angle, true anomaly, ν. It is the angle, measured positive in the direction of

motion, between perigee and the satellite’s position. Of the six orbital elements, only

true anomaly changes continually (ignoring perturbations).

V

R

υ

perigee

Figure 44: True anomaly. The true anomaly, ν, is the angular distance from perigee to

r

the orbit position vector, R .

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STK Astronautics Primer

Recall, the reason we wanted to develop the orbital elements in the first place was to

give us a short-hand method of describing an orbit. We also wanted to use parameters

that would have some physical meaning we could more easily visualize. The six

classical orbital elements are summarized below.

Semimajor axis a Size (and energy)

Eccentricity e Shape (e = 0 for circle, 0> e >1 for

ellipse, e = 1 for parabola, e > 1 for

hyperbola)

Inclination i Tilt of orbit plane with respect to the

equator

Longitude of ascending node Ω Twist of orbit with respect to the

ascending node location

Argument of perigee ω Location of perigee with respect to the

ascending node

True anomaly ν Location of satellite with respect to

perigee

Satellite Missions

As we already know, varying missions require different orbits, which can be described

using Classical orbit elements. The table following shows various missions and their

typical orbits. Technically speaking, a geostationary orbit is a circular orbit with a

period of exactly 24 hours and an inclination of exactly 0°. A satellite in a

geostationary orbit appears to be stationary to an Earth-based observer.

Geosynchronous orbits are slightly inclined orbits with a period of 24 hours. In

practice, it is almost impossible to achieve an orbit with exactly a 24-hour period and

an inclination of 0°. Thus, the two terms are frequently used interchangeably. A semi-

synchronous orbit has a period of 12 hours. Sun-synchronous orbits are retrograde

low-Earth orbits (LEO) inclined 95° to 105°; they are typically used in remote-sensing

missions to observe Earth. A Molniya orbit is a semi-synchronous, eccentric orbit used

for some communication missions. Super-synchronous orbits are usually circular

orbits with periods longer than 24 hours.

Axis (Altitude) n

hours

♦ Early Warning (35,780 km)

♦ Nuclear detection

synchronous

(~150-900 km)

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STK Astronautics Primer

Axis (Altitude) n

synchronous hours

(20,232 km)

obit (~300 km)

Intelligence (RP = 7971 km); hours

e = 0.7

(RA = 45,170 km)

Ground Tracks

Orbital elements allow us to visualize the shape of an orbit around the Earth. Because

we use satellites for missions involving specific points on Earth—taking pictures,

communications, navigation—we really would like to know what path the satellite

traces over the Earth’s surface. A satellite ground track is the orbit path (usually for

multiple orbits) projected onto a flat map of the Earth. These projections become

complex because we must account for the satellite circumnavigating the entire Earth

during each orbit while the Earth itself rotates at 1600 km/sec underneath it.

To visualize a satellite’s ground track, let’s begin by assuming the Earth doesn’t

rotate. Picture an orbit around this nonrotating Earth. Because the orbit plane must

pass through the Earth’s center, the ground track traces a great circle. By definition,

a great circle is any circle on a sphere that can be projected through the center. For

example, all lines of longitude are great circles. The equator is the only line of latitude

that is a great circle—No other line of latitude “slices through” the center of the Earth.

cylindrical projection), things start to look different. Imagine yourself on the ground,

watching the orbit pass by overhead. If the Earth didn’t rotate, the projection of the

ground track would always look the same—a sine wave over the surface of the Earth,.

(If you have trouble picturing why it is a sine wave, roll a piece of paper around a

soda can and draw an inclined circle around the can. When you unroll the paper,

you’ll see a sine wave just like an orbit ground track!)

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X

X

Figure 45: Ground track for a nonrotating Earth. If the Earth didn’t rotate, the ground

track would always look like a constant sine wave. As the figure shows, the ground track

would always have the same relative orientation with respect to a stationary observer on

the Earth (shown here as an X in the Pacific ocean).

Now let’s start the Earth rotating again. As you watch the orbit pass overhead,

something happens from one orbit to the next—the ground track shifts to the west!

What happened? The orbit plane is fixed in inertial space. This means the orbit stays

the same with respect to a stationary observer. However, because the Earth rotates at

15° per hour, an observer on the Earth is not stationary. As the Earth (and an Earth-

fixed observer) rotates to the east, the satellite ground track shifts to the west from

one orbit to the next, as shown in Figure 46. The amount it shifts depends on its

period. The longer the period, the more time the Earth has to rotate between

successive orbits.

X

X

Figure 46: Satellite ground tracks. Satellite orbits are fixed in space with respect to a

stationary observer. However, a stationary observer on the Earth is rotating to the east at

15° per hour. Thus, each successive orbit ground track shifts to the west.

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STK Astronautics Primer

E C B A

Figure 47: Ground tracks for orbits with different periods. Orbit A: Period=2.67 hr,

Orbit B: Period=8 hr, Orbit C: Period=18 hr, Orbit D: Period=24 hr, Orbit E: Period=24

hr.

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STK Astronautics Primer

PREDICTING ORBITS

One of the most important problems in mission planning and satellite command &

control is being able to accurately predict orbital motion. To track satellites through

space, we need to know where they are now and where they’ll be later so that we can

predict sensor coverage and point our antennas at them to gather data. Although we

can easily predict this motion when the orbit is a circle, the problem becomes more

complicated when the orbit is an ellipse, and most orbits are at least slightly elliptical.

An orbit propagator is a mathematical algorithm for predicting the future position and

velocity (or orbital elements) of an orbit given some initial conditions and

assumptions. There are a wide variety of orbit propagation techniques available with

widely different accuracy and applications. Knowing the assumptions built into

different propagation schemes is key to knowing which one to use for a given

application.

Overview

Understanding Propagators

♦ How do propagators work?

♦ What is meant by a “two-body” propagator?

Orbit Perturbations

♦ What are “J2” and those other things that affect an orbit?

♦ How can I model orbit perturbations?

♦ What are TLE set?

STK Propagators

♦ What propagators are available in STK?

Understanding Propagators

To understand the basic problem of orbit propagators, let’s return to the example of

our ball-throwing astronaut shown in Figure 48. What we’re after is a simple

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mathematical algorithm that will allow us to predict the ball’s position and velocity at

any point in time. Whether you’re analyzing the motion of baseballs or galaxies, the

fundamental approach is the same. This motion analysis process has three steps:

♦ list simplifying assumptions

♦ define initial conditions

Figure 48: A baseball motion propagator. The simple example of a thrown baseball

can be used to describe the basic problem of orbit propagation.

We can now apply the motion analysis process to describe, and eventually propagate,

the motion of the baseball. First, we select a simple, convenient coordinate system

with its origin at the point of release. The x-direction is defined to be positive to the

right in the picture. The y-direction is positive down. Next, we need to make some

assumptions to make our lives easier. The major assumption we’ll make is that

Earth’s gravity is the only force acting on the ball, a force which is constant over the

flight path we’re concerned with. That is, wind resistance and other forces (the

gravitational pull of the Moon and stars, solar pressure, etc.) are negligible. This

gravitational force can be expressed using Newton’s law, using vector notation, as:

v

Fgravity = mgy$ N

Note y$ is a vector notation indicating the force of gravity acts only in the y-direction, i.e.,

down. See the section describing vectors for further explanation.

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STK Astronautics Primer

Finally, we need some initial conditions. Let’s pretend that the ball leaves the pitcher’s

hand at a velocity of 10 m/s on a horizontal path (i.e., all motion in the x-direction).

r r

Symbolically we would say the initial velocity ( Vinitial ) and position ( Rinitial ) are:

Vinitial = 10 x$ m / sec

r

Rinitial = 0x$ + 0y$ m

To derive an expression for the velocity and position of the ball as a function of time,

we begin by writing the acceleration as a function of time. Recall we assumed the only

force on the ball is due to gravity, which acts to accelerate the ball in the positive y-

direction. Thus, we have:

r

a = 0 x$ + gy$ m / sec 2

To obtain the instantaneous velocity at any time (t), we must integrate this equation

with respect to time. (Remember integrals from calculus? Basically, an integral is a

mathematical means of adding together lots of small changes over time to develop the

total change.) Thus,

r r

V (t ) = Vinitial + gty$ = 10 x$ + gty$ m / sec

This equation tells us that the ball will keep its initial horizontal velocity constant but

will speed up in the vertical direction due to gravity (which we already knew). To

obtain the instantaneous position of the ball at any time (t), we must once again

integrate this equation with respect to time so that:

r r r 1 1

R( t ) = Rinitial + Vinitial t + gt 2 y$ = 10tx$ + gt 2 y$

2 2

We can now use these relatively simple equations to propagate the motion of the

baseball. Using a simple spreadsheet, we can determine the position and velocity of

the baseball for each second for a total 10-second flight. These values and a graph

depicting the trajectory are shown in Figure 49. Notice the trajectory we derived is

exactly what we’d expect from experience. Often, people mistakenly refer to the

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STK Astronautics Primer

section of an ellipse.

Trajectory of the Baseball

(sec) X (m)

0 0 0.0

100

10

20

30

40

50

60

70

80

90

0

1 10 4.9 0.0

50.0

2 20 19.6 100.0

3 30 44.1 150.0

4 40 78.4 200.0

Y (m)

250.0

5 50 122.5 300.0

6 60 176.4 350.0

7 70 240.1 400.0

450.0

8 80 313.5 500.0

9 90 396.8

10 100 489.9

Figure 49: Results of baseball propagator: Using the simple equations of motion we

derived for the baseball, we can use a spreadsheet to calculate the x and y positions at

each point in time for a 10-second flight. Plotting these on a graph, we see the shape of

the trajectory.

Note that the technique we developed here was for analytic propagation. An analytic

propagation technique has a close-form solution. In other words, given the initial

conditions, we solve directly for the position and velocity at any future time using a

straightforward “plug and chug” of the equations of motion. How accurate is this

propagation technique? As we shall see, this (and any other method) is only as good

as the assumptions we make. For example, we assumed no wind resistance, but we

know from experience that a sudden gust of wind could make this trajectory change

considerably. In the next section, we’ll apply this same basic technique to understand

the slightly more complicated motion of a satellite in orbit.

Now we’ll develop a simple method we can use to propagate the position and velocity

of a satellite known at a given time to predict its position and velocity at some time in

the future. By “simple method” we mean the restrictions placed on the complexity of

the problem. In this case, one of the primary assumptions we will make is that there

are only two bodies concerned—the Earth and the satellite. Thus, we arrive at the

term used to describe this approach “the restricted two-body problem.”

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STK Astronautics Primer

The approach we’ll take is exactly the same as the one we used to describe the motion

of the baseball in the previous section. Using the same motion analysis process

described, we can apply the three basic steps of our motion analysis model: define a

coordinate system, make assumptions and identify equations of motion. Our

coordinate system will be the geocentric-equatorial coordinate system described earlier.

The assumptions we make will “restrict” our solution to cases in which these

assumptions apply. Fortunately, this includes most of the situations we’ll encounter.

We’ll assume that:

♦ satellites travel high enough above the Earth’s atmosphere so that the drag

force is small.

♦ the satellite won’t maneuver or change its path, so we can ignore the thrust

force.

♦ we’re considering the motion of the satellite close to the Earth, so we can

ignore the gravitational attraction of the Sun, the Moon or any third body.

(That’s why we call this the two-body problem.)

♦ compared to Earth’s gravity, other forces such as those due to solar

radiation, electromagnetic fields, etc. are negligible.

♦ the mass of the Earth is much, much larger than the mass of the spacecraft.

♦ the Earth is spherically symmetrical with uniform density and can thus be

treated as a point mass.

After all these assumptions, we’re left with gravity as the only force affecting the

motion of a satellite for the restricted two-body problem. This can be expressed (using

vector notation) as:

v − GM Earth M satellite $

Fsatellite = 2

R

Rsatellite

The force due to gravity on a satellite depends on the mass of both the satellite and

Earth and the distance to the Earth’s center. The direction is down, in the minus-R

direction.

For convenience, we often combine GMEarth to derive an expression µEarth , known as the

Earth’s gravitational parameter.

While Newton’s law of gravity describes the force on the satellite, we can use Newton’s

2nd law of motion to describe the effect of that force to develop our equations of

motion. From Newton’s second law, the force on the satellite can be expressed as:

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STK Astronautics Primer

Setting the two expressions for force on the satellite equal to each other, we develop

an expression for the satellite’s acceleration:

v −µ

a satellite = 2 Earth R$

Rsatellite

A satellite accelerates down [minus-R direction] due to gravity. The further away from

the Earth’s center, the smaller the gravitational force and, therefore, the smaller the

corresponding acceleration.

This equation says the motion of a satellite depends only on the distance between the

center of the Earth and the satellite. It is independent of satellite mass. Substituting

the more common notation for acceleration, we get the two-body Equation of Motion.

.. − m

v Earth R$

R= 2

R

where

&&v

R = 2nd derivative of position = acceleration (km/sec2)

r

R$ = unit vector in direction of R

What can the two-body equation of motion tell us about the movement of a satellite

around the Earth? Unfortunately, in its present form—a second-order, non-linear,

vector differential equation—it doesn’t help us visualize anything about this

movement. So what good is it? To understand the significance of the two-body

equation of motion, we must first “solve” it using rather complex mathematical slight-

of-hand. When the smoke clears, we’re left with an expression for the position of an

object in space in terms of some variables we already know.

R=

(

a 1 − e2 )

1 + e cosν

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STK Astronautics Primer

where

r

R = magnitude of R

e = eccentricity (dimensionless)

This equation represents the solution to the restricted two-body equation of motion

and describes the location, R, of a satellite in terms of a few constants and some

initial conditions. We can now make use of the solution to the two-body equation of

motion to propagate the position of a satellite to any point in time.

In nice circular orbits, determining how long a satellite takes to travel from an initial

position to a future position is simple, because the satellite is moving at a constant

speed. However, in an elliptical orbit this speed varies (recall a satellite travels fastest

at perigee and slowest at apogee, keeping total energy constant). As a result, we don’t

know how the true anomaly, ν, changes with time because it doesn’t change

uniformly. Here’s where Johannes Kepler came to the rescue. He developed this

technique to describe the orbit of Mars. To describe motion in an elliptical orbit,

Kepler began by defining the mean motion, n, which tells us the mean, or average,

speed in the orbit. The mean motion is defined as:

angle 2π µ

n= = =

time P a3

where

P = period (sec)

Kepler figured out how to move n to a time in the future and, conversely, given a

future n, how to find out how long Mars would take to travel there. Kepler’s approach

was purely geometrical—he related motion on a circle to motion on an ellipse. To do

this, he had to invent a new angle called the mean anomaly, M, defined as:

M = nT (1)

where

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STK Astronautics Primer

Mean anomaly is an angle that has no physical meaning and can’t be drawn in a

picture. We’ll have to describe it mathematically. Expressing this equation in terms of

two points in the same orbit:

where

Mfuture = mean anomaly when the satellite is in the future position (rad)

Minitial = mean anomaly when the satellite is in the initial position (rad)

tfuture = time when the satellite is in the final position (e.g., 3:47 a.m.)

tinitial = time when the satellite is in the initial position (e.g., 3:30 a.m.)

To relate elliptical motion to circular motion, Kepler defined another new angle called

the eccentric anomaly, E, so that he could relate M to E and then E to n. With all of

these things defined, Kepler was able to develop his now-famous equation, commonly

called Kepler’s Equation. (For this equation to work, all angles must be in radians.)

M = E − e sin E (3)

where

e = eccentricity

e + cos ν

cos E = (4)

1 + e cos E

where

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STK Astronautics Primer

cos E − e

cos ν = (5)

1 − e cos E

Finally, we have all the equations needed to build a complete two-body propagator.

The first problem, and the easiest, is finding the time of flight between two points in

an orbit. Given νinitial and νfuture, we simply go through the following steps:

♦ Use Equation (2) to solve for the time of flight (tfuture – tinitial)

The second problem we can solve using Kepler’s method is far more practical. This

involves determining a satellite’s position at some future time, tfuture, as shown in

Figure 50.

Time of Flight

υ Future

υ Initial

Figure 50: Time of flight on an elliptical orbit. The second problem Kepler tackled

was predicting the future position of a satellite knowing only its initial position.

This second problem is much trickier. We assume that we know where the satellite is

at time tinitial, so we know νinitial. We start by finding Einitial, using Equation (4). Then we

find Minitial using Kepler’s Equation (3).

Now, because we know tfuture, using Equation (2), we can find Mfuture:

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STK Astronautics Primer

( )

M future − M initial = n t future − t initial − 2 kπ

Great. We’re now on our way to finding nfuture, which tells us where the satellite will

be. So we go to Kepler’s Equation again to find Efuture. Let’s rearrange this equation

and put E on the left side:

OOPS! Efuture is on both sides of the equation. This is called a transcendental equation

and can’t be solved for Efuture directly. In fact, almost every notable mathematician

over the past 300 years has tried to find a direct solution to this form of Kepler’s

Equation without success. So we must resort to “math tricks” to solve for Efuture. The

“math trick” we’ll use is called iteration. To see how iteration works, think about the

kids’ game Twenty Questions. In this game, your partner thinks of a person, place, or

thing and you must guess what he’s thinking of. You’re allowed 20 questions

(guesses) to which your partner can answer only “yes” or “no.” In seeking the right

answer, a good player will systematically eliminate all other possibilities until only the

correct answer remains.

equation:

y = cos(y)

Because we can’t solve for y using algebra (we can’t get the y out of the cosine

function to put all the ys on the left side), we must iterate. Begin by taking a guess at

the value for y, and take the cosine to see how close you were. Then take this as the

new value of y and use it for the next guess, and keep doing this iteration until the

new y equals the old y (or is, say, within 0.000001 radians of the old value).

Let’s try it to see what the answer for y really is. Take out your calculator and use π/4

radians as your first guess for y. (Remember to set your calculator to use radians, not

degrees.) Keep pressing the cosine function button and you’ll see the value slowly

converges to 0.739085 radians (about 43°). Presto—you’ve now solved the

transcendental equation y = cos(y) using iteration!

We can use this same iterative technique to solve Equation (6) for Efuture. It turns out

that the values for M and E are always pretty close together, even for the most

eccentric orbits, so let’s use Mfuture for our first guess at Efuture. Here’s the algorithm:

♦ Use this new Efuture for the next guess for Equation (6).

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STK Astronautics Primer

♦ Keep doing the previous step until Efuture doesn’t change by much (less than

about 0.0001 rad). At this point, the solution is said to have converged.

This brute force iteration method will solve Equation (6), but there are much better

methods in use in most standard propagators.

Let’s quickly summarize what we’ve learned. If we know where we are in an orbit and

where we want to be, we can use Kepler’s Equation to solve for the time it takes to

travel to the place we want to be. The solution is very straightforward. If, however, we

know where we are and want to know where we’ll be at some future time, we can use

Kepler’s Equation to find that location only by iterating a transcendental equation for

eccentric anomaly.

Orbit Perturbations

In deriving the two-body equation of motion, we had to assume that:

♦ the Earth’s mass was much greater than the satellite’s mass

♦ the Earth was spherically symmetric with uniform density, so it could be

treated as a point mass

&&v + µ R

R $ =0 (7)

R2

The solution to this equation gives us the six classical orbital elements:

a = semimajor axis

e = eccentricity

i = inclination

ω = argument of perigee

ν = true anomaly

Under our assumptions, the first five of these elements remain constant for a given

orbit. Only the true anomaly, ν, varies with time as the satellite travels around its

fixed orbit. What happens if we now change some of our original assumptions? Other

classical orbital elements besides ν will begin to change as well. Any changes to these

classical orbital elements due to other forces are called perturbations. To see which

classical orbital elements will change and by how much, let’s look at our first

assumption—gravity is the only force.

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STK Astronautics Primer

Atmospheric Drag

Just as a sudden gust of wind changes the course of a football, atmospheric drag can

affect satellites in low Earth orbit (below about 1000 km). Let’s look at how drag

affects the orbital elements.

Because drag is a nonconservative force, it takes energy away from the orbit in the

form of friction on the satellite. Thus, we expect the semimajor axis, a, to decrease.

The eccentricity also decreases, since the orbit becomes more circular. Let’s see why

this is so. When a satellite in an elliptical orbit is at perigee, it has a greater speed

than it would if the orbit were circular at that same altitude. The drag decreases the

speed, making it closer to the circular orbit speed. That’s exactly what we see in

Figure 51. It’s as if drag were giving the satellite a small negative velocity change, or

delta (∆) V, (slowing it down) each time it passes perigee.

successive orbits

∆V

drag

Earth’s

atmosphere original orbit

Figure 51: The effect of drag on an eccentric, low-Earth orbit. As a satellite passes

through the upper atmosphere at perigee, drag acts to gradually slow it down,

circularizing the orbit until it eventually decays.

Drag is very difficult to model because of the many factors affecting the Earth’s upper

atmosphere and the satellite’s attitude. The Earth’s day-night cycle, seasonal tilt,

variable solar distance, the fluctuation of Earth’s magnetic field, the Sun’s 27-day

rotation and the 11-year cycle for Sun spots make precise modeling nearly

impossible. The force of drag also depends on the satellite’s coefficient of drag and

frontal area, which can also vary widely, further complicating the modeling problem.

The uncertainty in these variables is the main reason Skylab decayed and burned up

in the atmosphere several years earlier than first predicted. For a given orbit,

however, we can approximate how the semimajor axis and the eccentricity change

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STK Astronautics Primer

with time, at least for the short term. Different propagation techniques use different

methods of estimating drag, with widely varying accuracy.

Earth’s Oblateness—“J2”

Columbus was wrong! The Earth isn’t really round. From space, it looks like a big,

blue spherical marble, but if you take a closer look, it’s really kind of squashed. Thus,

it can’t most accurately be treated as a point mass, as it is treated in the two-body

assumption. We call this squashed shape oblateness. What exactly does an oblate

Earth look like? Imagine spinning a ball of jello around its axis and you can visualize

how the middle (or equator) of the spinning jello would bulge out—the Earth is fatter

at the equator than at the poles. This bulge can be modeled by complex mathematics

(which we won’t do here) and is frequently referred to as the J2 effect. J2 is a constant

describing the size of the bulge in the mathematical formulas used to model the oblate

Earth. Why “J2?” This term arises from the mathematical short-hand used to

describe Earth’s gravitational field. (Gravitational acceleration at any point on Earth is

commonly expressed as a geopotential function expressed in terms of Legendre

polynomials and dimensionless coefficients Jn—whew!). J2, J3 and J4 are the zonal

coefficients that depend on latitude. Of these, J2 is by far the most important; it is

roughly 1000 times greater than either J3 or J4. However, for more precise modeling

of the Earth’s oblateness, all three of these must be taken into account. In addition,

other, higher order terms can be included in the model. These terms serve to slice the

Earth into wedges that depend on longitude (sectoral terms) and slice it again into

regions of longitude and latitude (tesseral terms).

Let’s concentrate on the simplest and most profound case, J2. What effect does J2

have on the orbit? Let’s look at Figure 52. Here it’s shown exaggerated; actually the

bulge is only about 22 km thick. That is, the Earth’s radius is about 22 km longer

along the equator than through the poles.

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STK Astronautics Primer

F

J2

F

J2

Figure 52: Diagram of Earth oblateness. The Earth’s oblateness, shown here as a

bulge at the equator (highly exaggerated to demonstrate the concept) causes a twisting

force on satellite orbits that change various orbital elements over time.

Let’s see if we can reason out how this bulge will affect the orbital elements. The force

caused by the equatorial bulge is still gravity. Recall that gravity is a conservative

force; therefore, the total mechanical energy in an orbit must be conserved. Total

mechanical energy depends on the orbit’s semimajor axis. Thus, as long as energy

remains constant (i.e., no drag or other forces adding or stealing energy), the

semimajor axis also remains constant. It turns out that the eccentricity, e, also

doesn’t change, although the explanation for this is beyond the scope of our

discussion here. Although you might expect the inclination to change because the

bulge pulls on our orbit, it doesn’t! However, it does affect the orbit by changing the

right ascension of the ascending node, Ω, and moving the argument of perigee, ω,

within the plane. That’s not very intuitive, but it’s like a force acting on a spinning

top. If you stand a nonspinning top on its point, gravity causes it to fall over. If you

spin the top first, gravity still tries to make it fall but, because of its angular

momentum, it begins to swivel—this motion is called precession. Let’s examine the

effect of precession on the ascending node and the argument of perigee more closely.

The gravitational effect of this equatorial bulge slightly perturbs the satellite

because the force no longer originates from the center of the Earth. This causes

the plane of the orbit to precess (like the spinning top), resulting in a movement of

the ascending node, ∆Ω. This motion is westward for posigrade orbits (inclination

<90°) and eastward for retrograde orbits (inclination > 90°).

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STK Astronautics Primer

Figure 54 shows this nodal regression rate, Ω& , as a function of inclination and

orbital altitude. Let’s look more closely at this figure. It shows that the higher the

satellite is, the less effect the bulge has on the orbit. This makes sense because

gravity decreases with the inverse square of the distance (see Newton’s Law of

Gravitation). It also says that if the satellite is in a polar orbit (center of the graph),

the bulge has no effect. The greatest effect occurs at low altitudes with low

inclinations. This makes sense, too, because the satellite travels much closer to

the bulge during its orbit, and thus is pulled more by the bulge. For low-altitude

and low-inclination orbits, the ascending node can move as much as 9° per day

(lower left corner and upper right corner of Figure 53).

Inclination and Eccentricity

10.0

Nodal Regression Rate (deg/day)

4000km x 100km

5.0 altitude elliptical orbit

0.0

orbit

-10.0

0 20 40 60 80 100 120 140 160 180

Inclination (deg)

Figure 53 Nodal Regression Rate, Ω & . The nodal regression rate caused by the Earth’s

equatorial bulge. Positive numbers represent eastward movement; negative numbers

represent westward movement. The less inclined an orbit is to the equator, the greater

the effect of the bulge. The higher the orbit, the smaller the effect.

Figure 54 shows how perigee location rotates for an orbit with a perigee altitude of

100 km depending on the inclination for various apogee altitudes. This perigee

rotation rate, ω& , is difficult to explain physically, but it could be derived

mathematically from the equation for J2 effects on perigee location. With this

perturbation, the major axis, or line of nodes, rotates in the direction of satellite

motion if the inclination is less than 63.4° or greater than 116.6°. It rotates

opposite to satellite motion for inclinations between 63.4° and 116.6°.

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STK Astronautics Primer

Inclination and Eccentricity

20.0

Perigee Rotation Rate (deg/day)

100km altitude

15.0 circular orbit

10.0

altitude elliptical orbit

0.0

-5.0

0 20 40 60 80 100 120 140 160 180

Inclination (deg)

Figure 54: Affects of J2 on argument of perigee. The perigee rotation rate caused by

the Earth’s equatorial bulge depends on inclination and altitude at apogee.

The effects of the Earth’s oblateness on the node and perigee positions give rise to

two unique orbits that have very practical applications. The first of these, the Sun-

synchronous orbit, takes advantage of eastward nodal regression at inclinations

greater than 90°. Looking at Figure 55, we see that the ascending node moves

eastward about 1° per day at an inclination of about 98° (depending on the

satellite’s altitude).

Coincidentally, the Earth also moves around the Sun about 1° per day (360° in

365 days), so at this Sun-synchronous inclination, the satellite’s orbital plane will

always maintain the same orientation to the Sun. This means the satellite can see

the same Sun angle when it passes over a particular point on the Earth’s surface.

As a result, the Sun shadows cast by features on the Earth’s surface won’t change

when pictures are taken days or even weeks apart. This is important for remote-

sensing missions such as reconnaissance, weather and monitoring of the Earth’s

resources, because they use shadows to measure an object’s height. By

maintaining the same Sun angle day after day, observers can better track changes

in weather, terrain or man-made features.

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Sun line

Sun angle orbit plane

Sun

angle Sun line

Sun line

Sun angle

Sun angle

Sun line

orbit plane

rotates at ~1 deg/

Earth moves around the

day due to Earth’s

Sun at ~1 deg/day

oblateness

Figure 55: Sun-Synchronous Orbit. Sun-synchronous orbits take advantage of the rate

of change in right ascension of the ascending node caused by the Earth’s oblateness. By

carefully selecting the proper inclination and altitude, we can match the rotation of Ω with

the movement of the Earth around the Sun. In this way, the same angle between the

orbit plane and the Sun can be maintained without using rocket engines to change orbit.

Such orbits are very useful for remote sensing missions that want to maintain the same

Sun angle on targets on the Earth’s surface.

The second unique orbit is the Molniya orbit, named after the Russian word for

lightning (as in “quick-as-lightning”). This is a 12-hour orbit with high eccentricity

(about e = 0.7) and a perigee location in the Southern Hemisphere. The inclination

is 63.4°—why? Because at this inclination, the perigee doesn’t rotate so the

satellite “hangs” over the Northern Hemisphere for nearly 11 hours of its 12-hour

period before it whips “quick as lightning” through perigee in the Southern

Hemisphere. Figure 56 shows the orbit and ground tracks for a Molniya orbit. The

Russians used this orbit for their communications satellites because they didn’t

have launch vehicles large enough to put them into geosynchronous orbits from

their far northern launch sites. Molniya orbits also offer better coverage of

latitudes above 80° north.

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Figure 56: Molniya orbit and ground tracks. Molniya orbits take advantage of the fact

that ω, due to Earth’s oblateness, is zero at an inclination of 63.4°. Thus, apogee stays

over the Northern Hemisphere, covering high latitudes for 11 hours of the 12-hour orbit

period.

Other Perturbations

Other perturbing forces can affect a satellite’s orbit and its orientation within that

orbit. These forces are usually much smaller than the J2 (oblate Earth) and drag

forces but, depending on the required accuracy, satellite planners may need to

anticipate their effects. These forces include:

♦ Solar radiation pressure, which can cause long-term orbit perturbations and

unwanted satellite rotation.

♦ Third-body gravitational effects (Moon, Sun, planets, etc.), which can perturb

orbits at high altitudes and on interplanetary trajectories.

♦ Unexpected thrusting caused by either out-gassing or malfunctioning

thrusters, which can perturb the orbit and cause satellite rotation.

Understanding and modeling orbit perturbations is one of the primary activities of

astrodynamics. Even very early space pioneers such as Kepler and Newton spent

considerable effort grappling with the various forces that disturb a satellite from pure

two-body motion. Let’s begin by classifying perturbations with respect to their relative

effects on orbital elements. Perturbations can cause both secular and periodic

changes to orbital elements. Secular perturbations are those that cause elements to

steadily diverge over time. Periodic perturbations are those that impart a sinusoidal

variation in elements over time. Short-term periodic perturbations are those with a

period less than the orbit period. Long-term periodic perturbations are those with a

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period greater than one orbit period. We can now look at two techniques for modeling

both secular and periodic perturbations. The relative effects of these different types

are illustrated in Figure 57.

types of perturbations

9

8 Long-term

Secular

Orbital element variation

7 Periodic

(arbitrary units)

6

5

4

3

2 Short- term

1

Periodic

0

0

8

Orbit Periods

Figure 57: Types of orbit perturbations. Orbit perturbations are categorized based on

their long-term effects on orbital elements.

General perturbations techniques are those that generalize the effects on orbital

elements in order to develop analytic expressions allowing for direct computation. In

the grossest sense, general perturbation techniques apply “fudge factors” to the

simple two-body solution to account for the effect of different perturbation sources.

For example, returning to our baseball-throwing astronaut scenario, we could model

the drag on the baseball using:

1

D= ρV 2 A

2

where

D = Drag (N)

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We could substitute this expression into our baseball equations to derive new

equations of motion that would account for the general effects of drag. Even with this

additional complexity, the equations could still be solved analytically.

One of the most widely used propagators was developed by the North American

Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) to track the 8000-plus satellites and space

junk in orbit around the Earth. Called Merged Simplified General Perturbations-4,

MSGP-4, this technique uses the generalized approach to model orbit perturbations.

about the orbit scenario that allow for more detailed modeling of individual

perturbation sources.

One of the most commonly used methods of communicating orbital parameters is the

2-line element sets generated by NORAD in Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado (literally, in

Cheyenne Mountain!). It is important to note that TLEs were developed specifically for

use with the MSGP-4 propagator! Using TLEs with any other propagator may

invalidate some of the built-in assumptions.

These elements contain many of the same elements as the classical orbital elements,

along with some additional parameters for identification purposes and for use in

modeling perturbations in the MSGP-4 propagator.

STK Propagators

In selecting the “best” propagator to use for a given application, it is important to

consider the assumptions on which they are based. The temptation is to use the most

“accurate” propagation model available. However, this can lead to false accuracy,

especially for very long term propagation over which time even the best models can

break down. The relative accuracy among various propagators can vary widely

depending on the scenario. For example, a geostationary spacecraft is well above most

atmospheric drag and J2 perturbations. Therefore, a short-term difference between

the two-body propagator and a more complex technique could be relatively small.

However, for a spacecraft in low-Earth orbit, the short-term differences between the

two solutions could be significant. The objective is to choose the most appropriate

propagation scheme for a given application. Unfortunately, any propagation technique

is simply an attempt to model events in the real world. Regardless of the technique

chosen, only frequent tracking of an orbit can guarantee that the predicted orbital

parameters will match the real world.

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STK Astronautics Primer

Two-Body

The two-body propagator or Keplerian motion propagator uses the same basic

technique outlined in the two-body equation of motion development. This technique

assumes the Earth is a perfect sphere and the only force acting on a satellite is

gravity. This propagator doesn’t account for any perturbations.

J2

The J2 propagator accounts for the 1st order effects of J2 Earth oblateness. This effect

causes secular changes to the orbital elements over time.

J4

The J4 propagator accounts for 1st and 2nd order J2 effects as well as 1st order J4

effects. J3, which causes long-term periodic effects, is not modeled. Because the 2nd

order J2 and 1st order J4 effects are very small, you’ll see very little differences

between the J2 and J4 propagators for most orbits considered.

MSGP-4

MSGP-4 stands for Merged Simplified General Perturbations-4. It is one of the most

widely used propagators in the industry. This technique uses the generalized

approach to model orbit perturbations, including both secular and periodic variations

such as Earth oblateness, solar and lunar gravitational effects and drag.

It is important to understand the purpose for which MSGP-4 was developed. NORAD

wanted a simple propagator that would provide acceptable results for a wide variety of

tracking tasks, from tracking high-priority military satellites to keeping tabs on space

junk. Given the over 8000 objects NORAD must track, a technique was needed that

would not be computationally intensive (is was first developed back when computers

were much slower than today). Furthermore, there are far fewer ground tracking sites

than there are objects to track. Thus, it is important that the propagated solution be

good enough to ensure the tracking radar can find a specific object the next time it

gets around to tracking it (which, for some very low priority objects like pieces of

rocket boosters, may be days or even weeks).

inputs: the TLE sets that contain parameters that make the analytic calculations

valid. For best results, MSGP-4 should always be used with TLEs. Likewise, NORAD-

generated TLEs should only be used in the MSGP-4 propagator.

68

STK Astronautics Primer

HPOP

HPOP is the High Precision Orbit Propagator. As its name implies, it uses a powerful

propagation technique to incorporate sophisticated orbit perturbation models. HPOP

uses a variety of high-fidelity models including:

♦ Joint Gravity Model (JGM) 2—a highly precise model of the Earth’s

oblateness.

♦ Lunar/solar gravitational effects—based on U.S. Naval Observatory data.

Accurate to within 0.03 arc seconds.

♦ Atmospheric drag effects— using either the 1971 Jacchia or the Harris

Priester model, which takes into account daily variations in the height of the

atmosphere due to solar heating among other parameters.

♦ Solar radiation pressure—yes, sunlight produces a small force on any exposed

surface. This force varies depending on how reflective the surface is—a

mirrored surface is more reflective than a black surface.

Depending on the application, HPOP can deliver accuracy on the order of 10 meters

per orbit. But beware of false accuracy, always remember—“garbage in, garbage out.”

To get this level of accuracy, your initial orbital elements must be at least this

accurate to start with. Putting NORAD-generated TLEs into HPOP will not necessarily

give you a better solution. No propagator can create accuracy, at best it can only

minimize the long term dispersions due to inherent limitations in our ability to model

the effects of perturbations.

Great Arc

The Great Arc propagator allows the user the model the flight path of a vehicle flying

close to Earth. By providing way points and speed, STK uses Great Arc to predict

where and when it will be next. The propagation scheme is essentially the same as the

Two-Body propagator, no perturbations are assumed.

Ballistic

The Ballistic propagator is a variation of the Two-Body propagator for use with

ballistic trajectories. These are the trajectories used by artillery shells, suborbital

sounding rockets and ballistic missiles, allowing the user to predict impact points or

determined required velocity to reach a certain point. The propagation “engine” is the

same as the Two-Body propagator, no perturbations are modeled.

LOP

The Long-term Orbit Predictor (LOP) allows accurate prediction of a satellite’s orbit

over many months or years. This is often used for long duration mission design, fuel

budget definition, and end-of-life studies. For performance reasons, it is impractical

69

STK Astronautics Primer

to compute the long-term variation in a satellite’s orbit using high accuracy, small

time step, propagators that compute a satellite’s position as it moves through its

orbit. LOP exploits a “variation of parameters” approach which integrates analytically

derived equations of motion computing the average effects of perturbations over an

orbit. This approach allows large multi-orbit time steps and typically improves

computational speed by several hundred times while still offering high fidelity

computation of orbit parameters.

Lifetime

Lifetime estimates the amount of time a low Earth orbiting satellite can be expected to

remain in orbit before the drag of the atmosphere causes reentry. While the

computational algorithms are similar to those implemented in the Long-term Orbit

Predictor, there are some important differences. First, a much more accurate

atmospheric model is implemented to compute the drag effects. The gravitational

model for the Earth, however, is significantly simplified since the inclusion of the

higher order terms doesn’t impact orbit decay estimates.

70

STK Astronautics Primer

SATELLITE ACCESS

Overview

Line of sight

♦ Why is line of sight important for satellite viewing?

Communication Architecture

♦ What are the elements that make up a space mission communication

architecture?

Communication Links

♦ What are the communication paths used by satellites and ground

stations?

Understanding Access

♦ What is meant by “satellite access?”

Describing Access

♦ How do I explain and quantify satellite access?

Line of Sight

Standing on a beach, looking out over the ocean on a clear day, you can see

right to the edge of the horizon, which is about 8 miles away. If you were to

watch a ship sailing away from you, you would notice that the hull would

disappear first, followed by the top of the mast The taller the mast, the further

the ship could be from the shore before disappearing completely from sight. An

object is in your line of sight if you can draw a straight line between yourself

and the object without any interference, such as a mountain or a bend in a

road. An object beyond the horizon is below our line of sight and, therefore, can

be difficult to communicate with. Early methods of long-distance

communications increased the effective line of sight by employing methods

such as smoke signals or other means. Because the line of sight was raised so

that others could see, or receive the message being sent, communication

among objects that didn’t really have a direct line of sight was achieved.

At the beginning of the 20th Century, radio engineers discovered that certain

frequencies could be bounced off the ionosphere, greatly extending the effective

line of sight for communications and creating a new “radio horizon” far beyond

the more limited visual horizon. Today’s communications satellites take this

basic principle to the extreme. Ground-based operators can “bounce” radio

70

STK Astronautics Primer

virtual line of sight extending half a world away. Furthermore, by bouncing

signals between satellites, this virtual line of sight can be extended to cover the

entire global community.

Satellite access is the problem of determining when, where and for how long a

satellite (or any number of objects you may be interested in) is within line of

sight of other objects.

Communications Architecture

To understand the satellite access problem more clearly, let’s begin by

reviewing the players in the access problem. Figure 58 illustrates the elements

that make up a communications architecture.

crosslink

return link

re

crosslink forward link

tu

rn

do

lin

wn

k

lin

k fo

ink

rw

ar

upl

d

lin

k

consists of space and ground-based elements tied together by communications

paths or links.

Spacecraft

71

STK Astronautics Primer

Ground stations

The Earth-based antennas and receivers that talk to the spacecraft. These are

typically remote tracking sites or users of mission data.

Control Center

The command center that controls the spacecraft and all other elements of the

system.

Relay satellites

Additional satellites that link the primary spacecraft with the ground stations

and control center.

Communications Links

Information moves among the elements of the communications architecture

using various communication paths or links.

Uplink

Data sent from a ground-based station to the primary satellite.

Downlink

Data sent from the primary satellite to a ground station.

Forward link

Data sent from a ground station to the primary satellite via a relay satellite.

Return link

Data sent from the primary satellite to a ground station via a relay satellite.

Crosslink

Data sent through either the forward or return link between the primary satellite

and a relay satellite.

Understanding Access

The simplest example of a satellite access problem is that between a satellite

TV dish and a direct-broadcast geosynchronous satellite. As a user, you just

want to point your dish and start watching the big game. Thus, you’re only

interested in downlink.

72

STK Astronautics Primer

in downlinking.

For satellites in geostationary orbit, the geometry and dynamic nature of both

uplink and downlink is very stable. It is this stability that make geostationary

satellites so useful for point-to-point message relaying. You can set up you

dish, point it at a pre-determined point in the sky and pretty much forget about

it. Because the ground track of a geosynchronous orbit is at most a tiny figure-

8 centered on the equator, a line of sight between the dish and the satellite is

almost constant (at least constant enough to ensure uninterrupted broadcast of

that big game!).

Describing Access

So how do you know where to point the satellite dish? This depends on two

important pieces of information:

♦ The satellite’s location (orbital elements)

From this information, STK can determine the azimuth and elevation settings

for your dish. These two important parameters are defined below.

♦ Azimuth - The compass direction between the ground site and the

satellite direction, e.g., due south would be 180°.

♦ Elevation - Angle measured from the local horizontal to the satellite

direction, e.g., directly overhead would be 90°.

In addition, STK also computes range—the distance between the dish and the

satellite. While range is not so important to the average satellite TV user, it

becomes very important for communications engineers who must ensure there

is sufficient transmission power to effectively carry the signal across this

distance.

however, for any other satellite, we must include an additional parameter—

73

STK Astronautics Primer

time. Imagine it is exactly 13:20 (1:20 p.m.) local time and you want to point a

radar antenna at an airplane flying over your position. The plane is initially

due south of you, flying north but out of sight below the horizon. As the plane

first comes into view, azimuth will be 180° and the elevation 0°. As it

continues to fly north, azimuth will stay constant (disregarding Earth rotation)

and the elevation angle will increase. As it flies overhead, the azimuth angle

will switch around to 0° (it is now north of your position) and the elevation

angle will gradually decrease until the plane once again drops from view below

the horizon. If we kept track of the azimuth and elevation viewing angles to the

plane at 10-minute intervals we could build a simple table, or access report, as

shown below.

(deg) (deg)

13:30 180 0 Just coming into view

13:40 180 45 Well above horizon

13:50 ---- 90 Directly overhead (azimuth is

undefined)

14:00 0 45 Azimuth has switched around, plane is

now north of your position.

14:10 0 0 Plane drops below horizon, out of view

The geometry with respect to a plane flying directly overhead is relatively easy

to visualize. However, if you’re faced with the problem of a satellite in a highly

eccentric orbit flying over a position northwest of you on a descending node,

things become much more complicated. Fortunately, STK works out the

geometry for you. Figure 60 shows a relatively simple satellite access geometry.

74

STK Astronautics Primer

determining the geometry and timing of line-of-sight between various ground and

space-based objects.

Access reports can be easily generated using STK; the report provides azimuth,

elevation and range (AER) data for specified time intervals between whatever

objects you choose to define. Cumulative access time or duration can also be

reported.

must be taken into account. For example, if you are relaying information

between various ground stations and relay satellites or using an entire

constellation of satellites, the geometry can become very complex. To handle

these tasks, STK allows you to link together various objects to create a “chain”

for which access information can be determined. Figure 61 shows a more

complex series of “chained” objects. If one of these “objects” is the Sun, orbit

lighting—a critical parameter for power and thermal management—can be

computed.

be “chained” together, allowing STK to compute access information between all

of them. In this picture, access among a facility, relay satellite and a second

facility is shown.

RECOMMENDED READING

introduction to the space environment, spacecraft design, rockets and systems,

we recommend:

75

STK Astronautics Primer

McGraw-Hill.

www.mcgraw-hill.com, www.mhhe.com, or 800-338-3987 : The McGraw-Hill

Companies, >Order Services, PO Bos 545, Blacklick, Ohio. ISBN: 0-07-

057027-5.

activity of the United States Department of Defense and National Aeronautics

and Space Administration. Series editor is Dr. Wiley J. Larson. Other books in

the series include:

Hill.

Space Mission Analysis and Design, 2nd edition, Larson & Wertz (ed.), 1996,

Kluwer and Microcosm.

Space Propulsion Analysis and Design, Humble & Larson, 1995, McGraw-

Hill.

Reducing Space Mission Cost, Larson & Wertz (ed), 1996. Kluwer and

Microcosm.

Hill.

Larson, 1995, Kluwer and Microcosm.

www.wkap.nl, McGraw-Hill at www.mcgraw-hill.com or 800-338-3987, or

Microcosm at www.microcosm.com.

Operations, Cloud and Rainey.

Human Space Mission Analysis and Design, Connally, Giffen and Larson.

and Dawson, Kluwer and Microcosm.

76

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