Two bodies of different mass orbiting a common barycenter. The relative sizes and type of orbit are similar to the PlutoCharon system.

In physics, an orbit is the gravitationally curved trajectory of an object, [1] such as the trajectory of a planet around a star or a natural satellite around a planet. Normally, orbit refers to a regularly repeating trajectory, although it may also refer to a non-repeating trajectory. To a close approximation, planets and satellites follow elliptic orbits, with the central mass being orbited at a focal point of the ellipse, [2] as described by Kepler's laws of planetary motion.

Current understanding of the mechanics of orbital motion is based on Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, which accounts for gravity as due to curvature of spacetime, with orbits following geodesics. For ease of calculation, in most situations, orbital motion is adequately approximated by Newtonian mechanics, which explains gravity as a force obeying an inverse square law. [3]


Historically, the apparent motions of the planets were described by European and Arabic philosophers using the idea of celestial spheres. This model posited the existence of perfect moving spheres or rings to which the stars and planets were attached. It assumed the heavens were fixed apart from the motion of the spheres, and was developed without any understanding of gravity. After the planets' motions were more accurately measured, theoretical mechanisms such as deferent and epicycles were added. Although the model was capable of reasonably accurately predicting the planets' positions in the sky, more and more epicycles were required as the measurements became more accurate, hence the model became increasingly unwieldy. Originally geocentric it was modified by Copernicus to place the sun at the centre to help simplify the model. The model was further challenged during the 16th century, as comets were observed traversing the spheres. [4] [5]

The basis for the modern understanding of orbits was first formulated by Johannes Kepler whose results are summarised in his three laws of planetary motion. First, he found that the orbits of the planets in our solar system are elliptical, not circular (or epicyclic), as had previously been believed, and that the Sun is not located at the center of the orbits, but rather at one focus. [6] Second, he found that the orbital speed of each planet is not constant, as had previously been thought, but rather that the speed depends on the planet's distance from the Sun. Third, Kepler found a universal relationship between the orbital properties of all the planets orbiting the Sun. For the planets, the cubes of their distances from the Sun are proportional to the squares of their orbital periods. Jupiter and Venus, for example, are respectively about 5.2 and 0.723 AU distant from the Sun, their orbital periods respectively about 11.86 and 0.615 years. The proportionality is seen by the fact that the ratio for Jupiter, 5.23/11.862, is practically equal to that for Venus, 0.7233/0.6152, in accord with the relationship. Idealised orbits meeting these rules are known as Kepler orbits.

The lines traced out by orbits dominated by the gravity of a central source are conic sections: the shapes of the curves of intersection between a plane and a cone. Parabolic (1) and hyperbolic (3) orbits are escape orbits, whereas elliptical and circular orbits (2) are captive.
This image shows the four trajectory categories with the gravitational potential well of the central mass's field of potential energy shown in black and the height of the kinetic energy of the moving body shown in red extending above that, correlating to changes in speed as distance changes according to Kepler's laws.

Isaac Newton demonstrated that Kepler's laws were derivable from his theory of gravitation and that, in general, the orbits of bodies subject to gravity were conic sections (this assumes that the force of gravity propagates instantaneously). Newton showed that, for a pair of bodies, the orbits' sizes are in inverse proportion to their masses, and that those bodies orbit their common center of mass. Where one body is much more massive than the other (as is the case of an artificial satellite orbiting a planet), it is a convenient approximation to take the center of mass as coinciding with the center of the more massive body.

Advances in Newtonian mechanics were then used to explore variations from the simple assumptions behind Kepler orbits, such as the perturbations due to other bodies, or the impact of spheroidal rather than spherical bodies. Lagrange (1736–1813) developed a new approach to Newtonian mechanics emphasizing energy more than force, and made progress on the three body problem, discovering the Lagrangian points. In a dramatic vindication of classical mechanics, in 1846 Urbain Le Verrier was able to predict the position of Neptune based on unexplained perturbations in the orbit of Uranus.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) in his 1916 paper The Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity explained that gravity was due to curvature of space-time and removed Newton's assumption that changes propagate instantaneously. This led astronomers to recognize that Newtonian mechanics did not provide the highest accuracy in understanding orbits. In relativity theory, orbits follow geodesic trajectories which are usually approximated very well by the Newtonian predictions (except where there are very strong gravity fields and very high speeds) but the differences are measurable. Essentially all the experimental evidence that can distinguish between the theories agrees with relativity theory to within experimental measurement accuracy. The original vindication of general relativity is that it was able to account for the remaining unexplained amount in precession of Mercury's perihelion first noted by Le Verrier. However, Newton's solution is still used for most short term purposes since it is significantly easier to use and sufficiently accurate.

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