Skip to main content
Physics LibreTexts

3: Orbits and Gravity

How would you find a new planet at the outskirts of our solar system that is too dim to be seen with the unaided eye and is so far away that it moves very slowly among the stars? This was the problem confronting astronomers during the nineteenth century as they tried to pin down a full inventory of our solar system.

If we could look down on the solar system from somewhere out in space, interpreting planetary motions would be much simpler. But the fact is, we must observe the positions of all the other planets from our own moving planet. Scientists of the Renaissance did not know the details of Earth’s motions any better than the motions of the other planets. Their problem was that they had to deduce the nature of all planetary motion using only their earthbound observations of the other planets’ positions in the sky. To solve this complex problem more fully, better observations and better models of the planetary system were needed.

  • 3.1: The Laws of Planetary Motion
    Tycho Brahe’s accurate observations of planetary positions provided the data used by Johannes Kepler to derive his three fundamental laws of planetary motion. Kepler’s laws describe the behavior of planets in their orbits as follows: (1) planetary orbits are ellipses with the Sun at one focus; (2) in equal intervals, a planet’s orbit sweeps out equal areas; and (3) the relationship between the orbital period (P) and the semimajor axis (a) of an orbit is given by \(P^2 = a^3\) (when a is in units
  • 3.2: Newton’s Great Synthesis
    In his Principia, Isaac Newton established the three laws that govern the motion of objects: (1) objects continue to be at rest or move with a constant velocity unless acted upon by an outside force; (2) an outside force causes an acceleration (and changes the momentum) for an object; and (3) for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Momentum is a measure of the motion of an object and depends on both its mass and its velocity.
  • 3.3: Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation
    Gravity, the attractive force between all masses, is what keeps the planets in orbit. Newton’s universal law of gravitation relates the gravitational force to mass and distance. The force of gravity is what gives us our sense of weight. Unlike mass, which is constant, weight can vary depending on the force of gravity (or acceleration) you feel. When Kepler’s laws are reexamined in the light of Newton’s gravitational law, it becomes clear that the masses of both objects are important for the thir
  • 3.4: Orbits in the Solar System
    The closest point in a satellite orbit around Earth is its perigee, and the farthest point is its apogee (corresponding to perihelion and aphelion for an orbit around the Sun). The planets follow orbits around the Sun that are nearly circular and in the same plane. Most asteroids are found between Mars and Jupiter in the asteroid belt, whereas comets generally follow orbits of high eccentricity.
  • 3.5: Motions of Satellites and Spacecraft
    The orbit of an artificial satellite depends on the circumstances of its launch. The circular satellite velocity needed to orbit Earth’s surface is 8 kilometers per second, and the escape speed from our planet is 11 kilometers per second. There are many possible interplanetary trajectories, including those that use gravity-assisted flybys of one object to redirect the spacecraft toward its next target.
  • 3.6: Gravity with More Than Two Bodies
    Calculating the gravitational interaction of more than two objects is complicated and requires large computers. If one object (like the Sun in our solar system) dominates gravitationally, it is possible to calculate the effects of a second object in terms of small perturbations. This approach was used by John Couch Adams and Urbain Le Verrier to predict the position of Neptune from its perturbations of the orbit of Uranus and thus discover a new planet mathematically.
  • 3.E: Orbits and Gravity (Exercises)

Thumbnail: This space habitat and laboratory orbits Earth once every 90 minutes. (credit: modification of work by NASA)