A Simple Explicit Model: Short term planetary orbits

Abstract A transit of planets occurs when the planet passes between the Earth and the Sun in the plane of the Earth’s orbit. Transits of Venus occur approximately twice every 125 years and are generally events of great interest to the astronomy community and the general public. Calculating the times at which transits of Venus will occur is a rather complicated problem in it’s Newtonian formulation, however a number of approximations can be made that allow vastly simplified treatments. This report details a number of methods of numerically calculating the times at which transits of Venus occur, and presents the results of some calculations produced by these methods.



A transit of a planet occurs when the planet passes between the Earth and the Sun in the plane of the Earth’s orbit (the plane of the ecliptic). Transits of Venus are relatively rare events; although Venus passes between the Earth and the sun an average of once every eight years, the vast majority of these alignments are outside the plane of the ecliptic. Alignments within the plane of the ecliptic occur approximately twice every 125 years [1]. For exact calculations of planetary orbits that are accurate over arbitrarily large time frames, complicated models that take into account gravitational perturbations (in particular from Jupiter) and relativistic effects must be implemented. However, reasonable approximations over a few hundred years can be obtained by using Kepler’s laws of planetary motion and evolving the orbital parameters with time based on observed data. This is the approach that will be outlined in the remainder of this report.


A consequence of this treatment is that transits are calculated as instant events that occur only at one discrete value of time. it becomes useful to define vectors for each planet between the planet and the Sun (r). 2. The square of a revolutions duration (orbital period). the orbital inclination (i). These parameters – the longitude of a planet in the plane of the ecliptic (θtrue ). 3. However in the interests of minimising the required computing power. divided by the cube of the orbit’s greatest width. The line between a planet and the Sun sweeps out equal areas in equal times. 2 (2) . Defining these vectors with coordinates relative to the plane of the ecliptic. rE · (rE − rV ) >| rE || rE − rV | cos η Where η is the angular radius of the Sun. it does not take into account the angular diameter of the Sun as seen from Earth. It may be possible to perform ’transit checks’ for arbitrarily large time periods. whereas in reality a transit of Venus will take a number of hours as the planet moves across the face of the Sun. tan θtrue = cos Ψ sin Ω + sin Ψ cos Ω cos(i) Ψ = θ − θp + tan−1 ( − sin(Ω − ω) ) cos(i) cos(Ω − ω) (1) Although equation 1 can be used to numerically calculate the approximate times at which transits occur. is the same for all planets.Kepler’s laws of planetary motion are as follows [2]: 1. Thus it is possible to see in the range of times over which a transit occurs in much greater detail. It is relatively straightforward to calculate the vectors from equation 2 for values of time over some interval surrounding an approximate transit time (identified from equation 1). To alleviate this issue. it was decided to first determine the times of approximate transits and check in detail only for times in the order of days before and after. it can be shown geometrically that for a transit to occur the following condition must be met. the longitude of the perihelion (ω) and the ascending node (Ω) – all have observed values (or are derived from observed values with relative ease) that are catalogued by NASA [4]. negating the need for the initial determination of transit times. From these laws it is possible to derive expressions for the angular position of each planet in terms of a number of observable parameters as shown in equation 1. Each planet moves along an ellipse with the Sun at a focus.

. θ10 and θ20 are the initial angular positions of each planet relative to some conveniently defined axis. −1. n = . .2 2.1 Complicating the model by introducing orbits that are elliptical – from Kepler’s first law – and in the same plane.1 Methods Circular orbits As a first approximation to modelling the planetary orbits using Kepler’s laws. n + ( t10 − T1 t20 T2 tn = + θ20 −θ10 ) 2π 1 ( T1 − 1 T2 ) . From equation 3 it follows that the times at which the planets are aligned can be easily found by numerically solving equation 4 for tn . it will be shown that the results yielded are indeed a good approximation to those obtained from more complicated models. but that it will not provide realistic results in the case of Mercury 3 . −. It is worth noting that virtually all orbital parameters used in this report are obtained from [4]. 3. . it is possible to derive an expression for the true anomaly (θ − θp ) in terms of the eccentric anomaly (ξ – a time dependant parameter of the elliptical orbit) and the eccentricity of the orbit (e) using Kepler’s other laws. . This expression is as follows: √ ( 1 − e2 ) sin ξ tan(θ − θp ) = (e + cos ξ) (5) 1 It is worth noting that circular orbits may be a reasonable assumption in the case of Earth and Venus. −2. t10 and t20 are the times at which the intial angular positions are defined and θ1 and θ2 are the angular positions of the planets. (4) 2. .2 Elliptical orbits While the assumption of circular orbits may seem rather haphazard. In this case the angular positions of each planet are given by: 2π (t − t10 ) T1 2π θ2 (t) = θ20 + (t − t20 ) T2 θ1 (t) = θ10 + (3) Where T1 and T2 are the periods of orbit of the respective planets. 2. . it can be useful to assume that the planets are in circular orbits in a single plane with the Sun at its centre. 1.

tn becomes closer to t (the alignment time) with each iteration. If tn is defined as tn = ta +tb – where tb is some time 2 before alignment and ta is some time after alignment – the bisection method redefines ta and tb as follows: tb = tn if the dot product is < 1 and ta = tn if the dot product is < 1. the intersection between the plane of Venus’ orbit and the plane of the ecliptic) using the following relations: tan θtrue = cos Ψ sin Ω + sin Ψ cos Ω cos(i) Ψ = θ − θp + tan−1 ( − sin(Ω − ω) ) cos(i) cos(Ω − ω) (8) Alignments that occur at or sufficiently close to one of the nodes can be assumed to be transits. if the initial value of some orbital parameter (X) is known and the rate 4 .e. This test can be implemented simply by taking the dot product of the true angular positions of each planet θe · θv (θ is easily calculated for each planet once the true anomaly is known). A convenient approach to selecting a new time is to use a bisection method. and hence to determine if alignments occur near the nodes (i. the longitude of the perihelion (ω) and the ascending node (Ω) – the above method can be adapted to take the relative tilt of each orbit into account. If the dot product is <1 then t is before alignment and if the dot product is >1 then t is after alignment. the true anomaly can be calculated from equation 5 for each planet at tn . With the introduction of some new parameters – the longitude of a planet in the plane of the ecliptic (θtrue ). they vary very slowly relative to the orbits themselves and can be approximated –for time periods in the order of a few hundred years – by a constant. alignments that do not occur close to the nodes can be assumed to be out of plane alignments. If however. This can be done by defining a time varying version of each parameter in the relevant equations. Resultantly. the orbital inclination (i). the true anomaly is different for each planet (highly likely in the first instance) then a new time must be chosen in order to find an alignment. The bisection method in this case relies on it being possible to test whether the current time is before or after an alignment. One further complication takes into account the perturbations of each orbit due to interaction with other massive bodies in the Solar System (particularly Jupiter). If the true anomaly is the same for each planet at tn then that time (t) can be considered an alignment.The eccentric anomaly (ξ) can be calculated iteratively until it converges (usually < 10 iterations) from the relations: ξ (n+1) ≈ M A + π − e sin ξ (n) ξ (1) ≈ M A + π (6) (7) In order to determine if a transit occurs at a time tn . Similarly. While the perturbations are not strictly constant. As a result of this.

it’s parameters must be substituted into the following equation: r = µ{u(cos ∆θu − sin ∆θv) · rp + v(sin ∆θu + cos ∆θv) · rp } Where ∆θ = θ − θp : the true anomaly 1+e µ= 1 + e cos ∆θ a(1 − e) ˆ ˆ rp = {ˆ cos ω + y sin ω − z tan(i) sin(Ω − ω)} x 2 1 + tan (i) sin2 (Ω − ω) Calculation of r for Venus is possible. To calculate the time range over which the transit occurs it is useful to use the vector formulation (as outlined in section 1). then the time varying version of X (X(t)) can be ˙ approximated by: X(t) = X + Xt. Once the coordinates have been correctly transformed. Where η is the angular radius of the Sun. it is straightforward to calculate r for Venus in the same way as it is done for Earth. and as such it is relatively straightforward to adapt the method for calculating elliptical orbits to use the time varying parameters instead of the time constant parameters. The rate of change of all relevant constants is available from the same source as the constants [cite NASA]. but first it must undergo a coordinate transform to find it’s orbital parameters relative to the axes defined by the Earth’s orbit.2 In order to calculate the r vector for Earth. In reality. 5 . The condition that is true while a transit is occurring is given by equation 2. y and z in Venus’ orbital plane. r vectors can then be calculated for a range of times surrounding suspected transits and compared with the condition from equation 2 to determine over what range of times the transit occurs. v and n are the equivalent of x. 2.3 Identifying true transits The elliptical orbits approximation determines that transits of Venus happen at a single instant t. The coordinate transform can be calculated relatively straightforwardly through the use of the following relations: ˆ ˆ u = x cos Ω + y sin Ω ˆ ˆ v = −ˆ sin Ω cos(i) + y cos Ω cos(i) + z sin(i) x ˆ ˆ ˆ n = x sin Ω sin(i) − y cos Ω sin(i) + z cos(i) (10) (9) Where u. 2r E · (rE − rV ) >| rE || rE − rV | cos η.˙ of change of X (X) is known. transits take a number of hours over which Venus can clearly be seen moving across the face of the Sun.

6 . although it seems to be affected by some constant offset (starting approximately one hour early and ending approximately two hours early). Figure 1 compares computed transit times and dates to times obtained from a publicly available NASA database [3].3 Results Numerous models of gradually increasing complexity were implemented in order to numerically calculate the times at which transits of Venus occur. From these results it is possible to say that the vector model can calculate the times at which transits of Venus occur to with accuracy in the order of a few hours. but are still accurate to within a few days. To gain some insight into the accuracy of the various models. and achieves significantly greater accuracy for transit 4 (08/12/2125). it is useful to compare the calculated transit times with known transit times i. Figure 1: Numerical results Interestingly. transits that have been calculated using the full relativistic treatment or that have already occured. The first five transits occurring after January 1 2000 are shown.e. The vector model is consistantly accurate in it’s predictions. the circular orbit model appears to produce results that are of similar accuracy to the elliptical orbit model in most cases. From figure 2 it can be seen that this offset is not negated by reducing the size of the time steps and therefore it seems plausible that the offset is an indication of the best possible accuracy of the model. The circular and elliptical orbit models are somewhat less reliable.

http://ssd. When it is taken into consideration how minimal the required computational power is for these methods – in comparison to full relativistic or Newtonian treatments – the accuracy of the results is remarkable. 1993.gov/transit/catalog/VenusCatalog. which was able to calculate transit times to within a few hours.gsfc. Dick. 290(5):98 – 105. European Journal of Physics. A simple cartesian treatment of planetary motion. [4] NASA. [2] A T Hyman. 7 . Scientific American. The transit of venus.nasa. 2004.jpl.gov/?planet pos.3. [3] NASA.html. 14(4):145–147. http://eclipse.nasa.Figure 2: Effect of different timesteps on the accuracy of the vector model 4 Conclusion Various numerical methods were used to calculate the times at which transits of Venus occur. The most accurate of these methods was the vector model outlined in section 2. References [1] Steven J.