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# Orbit

An orbit is the path a celestial object follows when moving under the control of another's gravity. This gravitational effect is evident throughout the universe: satellites orbit planets, planets orbit stars, stars orbit the cores of galaxies, and galaxies revolve in clusters.

Without gravity, celestial objects would hurtle off in all directions. Gravity pulls those objects into circular and elliptical (oval-shaped) orbits. Indeed, gravity was responsible for the clumping together of dust and gas shortly after the beginning of the universe, which led to the formation of stars and galaxies.

## Kepler's laws and planetary motion

Since ancient times, astronomers have been attempting to understand the patterns in which planets travel throughout the solar system and the forces that propel them. One such astronomer was the German Johannes Kepler (15711630). In 1595, he discovered that the planets formed ellipses in space. In 1609, he published his first two laws of planetary motion. The first law states that a planet travels around the Sun on an elliptical path. The second law states that a planet moves faster on its orbit when it is closer to the Sun and slower when it is farther away.

Ten years later, Kepler added a third law of planetary motion. This law makes it possible to calculate a planet's relative distance from the Sun knowing its period of revolution. Specifically, the law states that the cube of the planet's average distance from the Sun is equal to the square of the time it takes that planet to complete its orbit.

Scientists now know that Kepler's planetary laws also describe the motion of stars, moons, and human-made satellites.

## Newton's laws

More than 60 years after Kepler published his third law, English physicist Isaac Newton (16421727) developed his three laws of motion and his law of universal gravitation. Newton was the first to apply the notion of gravity to orbiting bodies in space. He explained that gravity was the force that made planets remain in their orbits instead of falling away in a straight line. Planetary motion is the result of movement along a straight line combined with the gravitational pull of the Sun.

Newton discovered three laws of motion, which explained interactions between objects. The first is that a moving body tends to remain in motion and a resting body tends to remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. The second states that any change in the acceleration of an object is proportional to, and in the same direction as, the force acting on it. (Proportional means corresponding, or having the same ratio.) In addition, the effects of that force will be inversely proportional (opposite) to the mass of the object; that is, when affected by the same force, a heavier object will move slower than a lighter object. Newton's third law states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Newton used these laws to develop the law of universal gravitation. This law states that the gravitational force between any two objects depends on the mass of each object and the distance between them. The greater each object's mass, the stronger the pull, but the greater the distance between them, the weaker the pull. The strength of the gravitational force, in turn, directly affects the speed and shape of an object's orbit. As strength increases, so does the orbital speed and the tightness of the orbit.

Newton also added to Kepler's elliptical orbit theory. Newton found that the orbits of objects going around the Sun could be shaped as circles, ellipses, parabolas, or hyperbolas. As a result of his work, the orbits of the planets and their satellites could be calculated very precisely. Scientists used Newton's laws to predict new astronomical events. Comets and planets were eventually predicted and discovered through Newtonian or celestial mechanicsthe scientific study of the influence of gravity on the motions of celestial bodies.

## Einstein revises Newton's laws

In the early 1900s, German-born American physicist Albert Einstein (18791955) presented a revolutionary explanation for how gravity works. Whereas Newton viewed space as flat and time as constant (progressing at a constant ratenot slowing down or speeding up), Einstein described space as curved and time as relative (it can slow down or speed up).

According to Einstein, gravity is actually the curvature of space around the mass of an object. As a lighter object (like a planet) approaches a heavier object (like the Sun) in space, the lighter object follows the lines of curved space, which draws it near the heavier object. To understand this concept, imagine space as a huge stretched sheet. If you were to place a large heavy ball on the sheet, it would cause the sheet to sag. Now imagine a marble rolling toward the ball. Rather than traveling in a straight line, the marble would follow the curves in the sheet caused by the ball's depression.

Einstein's ideas did not prove Newton wrong. Einstein merely showed that Newtonian mechanics work more accurately when gravity is weak. Near stars and black holes (single points of infinite mass and gravity that are the remains of massive stars), where there are powerful gravitational fields, only Einstein's theory holds up. Still, for most practical purposes, Newton's laws continue to describe planetary motions well.

[See also Celestial mechanics; Moon; Satellite; Solar system; Star; Sun ]

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## orbit

orbit, in astronomy, path in space described by a body revolving about a second body where the motion of the orbiting bodies is dominated by their mutual gravitational attraction. Within the solar system, planets, dwarf planets, asteroids, and comets orbit the sun and satellites orbit the planets and other bodies.

Planetary Orbits

From earliest times, astronomers assumed that the orbits in which the planets moved were circular; yet the numerous catalogs of measurements compiled especially during the 16th cent. did not fit this theory. At the beginning of the 17th cent., Johannes Kepler stated three laws of planetary motion that explained the observed data: the orbit of each planet is an ellipse with the sun at one focus; the speed of a planet varies in such a way that an imaginary line drawn from the planet to the sun sweeps out equal areas in equal amounts of time; and the ratio of the squares of the periods of revolution of any two planets is equal to the ratio of the cubes of their average distances from the sun. The orbits of the solar planets, while elliptical, are almost circular; on the other hand, the orbits of many of the extrasolar planets discovered during the 1990s are highly elliptical.

After the laws of planetary motion were established, astronomers developed the means of determining the size, shape, and relative position in space of a planet's orbit. The size and shape of an orbit are specified by its semimajor axis and by its eccentricity. The semimajor axis is a length equal to half the greatest diameter of the orbit. The eccentricity is the distance of the sun from the center of the orbit divided by the length of the orbit's semimajor axis; this value is a measure of how elliptical the orbit is. The position of the orbit in space, relative to the earth, is determined by three factors: (1) the inclination, or tilt, of the plane of the planet's orbit to the plane of the earth's orbit (the ecliptic); (2) the longitude of the planet's ascending node (the point where the planet cuts the ecliptic moving from south to north); and (3) the longitude of the planet's perihelion point (point at which it is nearest the sun; see apsis).

These quantities, which determine the size, shape, and position of a planet's orbit, are known as the orbital elements. If only the sun influenced the planet in its orbit, then by knowing the orbital elements plus its position at some particular time, one could calculate its position at any later time. However, the gravitational attractions of bodies other than the sun cause perturbations in the planet's motions that can make the orbit shift, or precess, in space or can cause the planet to wobble slightly. Once these perturbations have been calculated one can closely determine its position for any future date over long periods of time. Modern methods for computing the orbit of a planet or other body have been refined from methods developed by Newton, Laplace, and Gauss, in which all the needed quantities are acquired from three separate observations of the planet's apparent position.

Nonplanetary Orbits

The laws of planetary orbits also apply to the orbits of comets, natural satellites, artificial satellites, and space probes. The orbits of comets are very elongated; some are long ellipses, some are nearly parabolic (see parabola), and some may be hyperbolic. When the orbit of a newly discovered comet is calculated, it is first assumed to be a parabola and then corrected to its actual shape when more measured positions are obtained. Natural satellites that are close to their primaries tend to have nearly circular orbits in the same plane as that of the planet's equator, while more distant satellites may have quite eccentric orbits with large inclinations to the planet's equatorial plane. Because of the moon's proximity to the earth and its large relative mass, the earth-moon system is sometimes considered a double planet. It is the center of the earth-moon system, rather than the center of the earth itself, that describes an elliptical orbit around the sun in accordance with Kepler's laws. All of the planets and most of the satellites in the solar system move in the same direction in their orbits, counterclockwise as viewed from the north celestial pole; some satellites, probably captured asteroids, have retrograde motion, i.e., they revolve in a clockwise direction.

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## orbit

or·bit / ˈôrbit/ • n. 1. the curved path of a celestial object or spacecraft around a star, planet, or moon, esp. a periodic elliptical revolution. ∎  one complete circuit around an orbited body. ∎  the state of being on or moving in such a course: the earth is in orbit around the sun. ∎  the path of an electron around an atomic nucleus. 2. a sphere of activity, interest, or application: he moved into the orbit of two great anticommunist socialists of the 1940s and 1950s. 3. Anat. the cavity in the skull of a vertebrate that contains the eye; the eye socket. ∎  the area around the eye of a bird or other animal. • v. (-bit·ed, -bit·ing) [tr.] (of a celestial object or spacecraft) move in orbit around (a star, planet, or moon): Mercury orbits the Sun. ∎  [intr.] fly or move around in a circle: the mobile's disks spun and orbited slowly. ∎  put (a satellite) into orbit. PHRASES: into orbit inf. into a state of heightened performance, activity, anger, or excitement: his goal sent the fans into orbit.

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## orbit

orbit Path of a celestial body in a gravitational field. The path is usually a closed one about the focus of the system to which it belongs, as with those of the planets around the Sun. Most celestial orbits are elliptical, although the eccentricity can vary greatly. It is rare for an orbit to be parabolic or hyperbolic.

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## orbit

orbit
1. The bony socket of the eye.

2. The path described by a body moving around another under gravitational attraction. See EQUATORIAL ORBIT; GEOSTATIONARY ORBIT; GEOSYNCHRONOUS ORBIT; POLAR ORBIT; and SUN-SYNCHRONOUS ORBIT.

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## orbit

orbit (or-bit) n. the cavity in the skull that contains the eye. It is formed from parts of the frontal, sphenoid, zygomatic, lacrimal, ethmoid, palatine, and maxillary bones.

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## orbit

orbit eye-socket XVI; path of a heavenly body XVII. — L. orbita wheel-track, course, path (of the moon), in medL. eye-cavity, sb. use of fem. of orbitus circular, f. orbis, orb- ORB.

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## orbit

orbit (in anatomy) Either of the two sockets in the skull of vertebrates that house the eyeballs.

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## orbit

orbit The bony socket of the eye.

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## orbit

orbitacquit, admit, backlit, bedsit, befit, bit, Brit, Britt, chit, commit, demit, dit, emit, fit, flit, frit, git, grit, hit, intermit, it, kit, knit, legit, lickety-split, lit, manumit, mishit, mitt, nit, omit, outsit, outwit, permit, pit, Pitt, pretermit, quit, remit, retrofit, shit, sit, skit, slit, snit, spit, split, sprit, squit, submit, tit, transmit, twit, whit, wit, writ, zit •albeit, howbeit •poet •bluet, cruet, intuit, suet, Yuit •Inuit • floruit • Jesuit •Babbitt, cohabit, habit, rabbet, rabbit •ambit, gambit •jackrabbit • barbet • Nesbit • rarebit •adhibit, exhibit, gibbet, inhibit, prohibit •titbit (US tidbit) • flibbertigibbet •Cobbett, gobbet, hobbit, obit, probit •orbit • Tobit •cubit, two-bit •hatchet, latchet, ratchet •Pritchett •crotchet, rochet

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