If placed in an orbit high enough to escape the frictional effects of the earth's atmosphere, the motion of the satellite is controlled by the same laws of celestial mechanics that govern the motions of natural satellites, and it will remain in orbit indefinitely. At heights less than 200 mi (320 km) the drag produced by the atmosphere will slow the satellite down, causing it to descend into the denser portion of the atmosphere where it will burn up like a meteor. To attain orbital altitude and velocity, multistage rockets are used, with each stage falling away as its fuel is exhausted; the effect of reducing the total mass of the rocket while maintaining its thrust is to increase its speed, thus allowing it to achieve the required velocity of 5 mi per sec (8 km per sec). At this speed the rocket's forward momentum exactly balances its downward gravitational acceleration, resulting in orbit. Once above the lower atmosphere, the rocket bends to a nearly horizontal flight path, until it reaches the orbital height desired for the satellite.
Unless corrections are made, orbits are usually elliptical; perigee is the point on the orbit closest to the earth, and apogee is the point farthest from the earth. Besides this eccentricity an orbit of a satellite about the earth is characterized by its plane with respect to the earth. An equatorial orbit lies in the plane of the earth's orbit. A polar orbit lies in the plane passing through both the north and south poles. A satellite's period (the time to complete one revolution around the earth) is determined by its height above the earth; the higher the satellite, the longer the period. At a height of 200 mi (320 km), the period of a circular orbit is 90 min; at 500 mi (800 km), it increases to 100 min. At a height of 22,300 mi (36,000 km), a satellite has a period of exactly 24 hr, the time it takes the earth to rotate once on its axis; such an orbit is called geosynchronous. If the orbit is also equatorial, the satellite will remain stationary over one point on the earth's surface.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.