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.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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