Types Of Orbits

          Orbit Meccanics:


For a spacecraft to achieve Earth orbit, it must be launched to an elevation above the Earth’s atmosphere and accelerated to orbital velocity. The most energy efficient orbit, that is one that requires the least amount of propellant, is a direct low inclination orbit. To achieve such an orbit, a spacecraft is launched in an eastward direction from a site near the Earth’s equator. The advantage being that the rotational speed of the Earth contributes to the spacecraft’s final orbital speed. At the United States’ launch site in Cape Canaveral (28.5 degrees north latitude) a due east launch results in a “free ride” of 1,471 km/h (914 mph). Launching a spacecraft in a direction other than east, or from a site far from the equator, results in an orbit of higher inclination. High inclination orbits are less able to take advantage of the initial speed provided by the Earth’s rotation, thus the launch vehicle must provide a greater part, or all, of the energy required to attain orbital velocity. Although high inclination orbits are less energy efficient, they do have advantages over equatorial orbits for certain applications. Below we describe several types of orbits and the advantages of each:

Geosynchronous orbits (GEO) are circular orbits around the Earth having a period of 24 hours. A geosynchronous orbit with an inclination of zero degrees is called a geostationary orbit. A spacecraft in a geostationary orbit appears to hang motionless above one position on the Earth’s equator. For this reason, they are ideal for some types of communication and meteorological satellites. A spacecraft in an inclined geosynchronous orbit will appear to follow a regular figure-8 pattern in the sky once every orbit. To attain geosynchronous orbit, a spacecraft is first launched into an elliptical orbit with an apogee of 35,786 km (22,236 miles) called a geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO). The orbit is then circularized by firing the spacecraft’s engine at apogee.

Polar orbits (PO) are orbits with an inclination of 90 degrees. Polar orbits are useful for satellites that carry out mapping and/or surveillance operations because as the planet rotates the spacecraft has access to virtually every point on the planet’s surface.

Walking orbits: An orbiting satellite is subjected to a great many gravitational influences. First, planets are not perfectly spherical and they have slightly uneven mass distribution. These fluctuations have an effect on a spacecraft’s trajectory. Also, the sun, moon, and planets contribute a gravitational influence on an orbiting satellite. With proper planning it is possible to design an orbit which takes advantage of these influences to induce a precession in the satellite’s orbital plane. The resulting orbit is called a walking orbit, or precessing orbit.

Sun synchronous orbits (SSO) are walking orbits whose orbital plane precesses with the same period as the planet’s solar orbit period. In such an orbit, a satellite crosses periapsis at about the same local time every orbit. This is useful if a satellite is carrying instruments which depend on a certain angle of solar illumination on the planet’s surface. In order to maintain an exact synchronous timing, it may be necessary to conduct occasional propulsive maneuvers to adjust the orbit.

Molniya orbits are highly eccentric Earth orbits with periods of approximately 12 hours (2 revolutions per day). The orbital inclination is chosen so the rate of change of perigee is zero, thus both apogee and perigee can be maintained over fixed latitudes. This condition occurs at inclinations of 63.4 degrees and 116.6 degrees. For these orbits the argument of perigee is typically placed in the southern hemisphere, so the satellite remains above the northern hemisphere near apogee for approximately 11 hours per orbit. This orientation can provide good ground coverage at high northern latitudes.

Hohmann transfer orbits are interplanetary trajectories whose advantage is that they consume the least possible amount of propellant. A Hohmann transfer orbit to an outer planet, such as Mars, is achieved by launching a spacecraft and accelerating it in the direction of Earth’s revolution around the sun until it breaks free of the Earth’s gravity and reaches a velocity which places it in a sun orbit with an aphelion equal to the orbit of the outer planet. Upon reaching its destination, the spacecraft must decelerate so that the planet’s gravity can capture it into a planetary orbit.

To send a spacecraft to an inner planet, such as Venus, the spacecraft is launched and accelerated in the direction opposite of Earth’s revolution around the sun (i.e. decelerated) until it achieves a sun orbit with a perihelion equal to the orbit of the inner planet. It should be noted that the spacecraft continues to move in the same direction as Earth, only more slowly.

To reach a planet requires that the spacecraft be inserted into an interplanetary trajectory at the correct time so that the spacecraft arrives at the planet’s orbit when the planet will be at the point where the spacecraft will intercept it. This task is comparable to a quarterback “leading” his receiver so that the football and receiver arrive at the same point at the same time. The interval of time in which a spacecraft must be launched in order to complete its mission is called a launch window.


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