In gravitationally bound
systems, the orbital speed of an astronomical body or object (e.g. planet
, artificial satellite
, or star
) is the speed
at which it orbit
s around either the barycenter
or, if one object is much more more massive than the other bodies in the system, its speed relative to the center of mass
of the most massive body..
The term can be used to refer to either the mean orbital speed, i.e. the average speed over an entire orbit, or its instantaneous speed at a particular point in its orbit. Maximum (instantaneous) orbital speed occurs at periapsis
(perigee, perihelion, etc.), while minimum speed for objects in closed orbits occurs at apoapsis (apogee, aphelion, etc.). In ideal two-body systems, objects in open orbits continue to slow down forever as their distance to the barycenter increases.
When a system approximates a two-body system
, instantaneous orbital speed at a given point of the orbit can be computed from its distance to the central body and the object's specific orbital energy
, sometimes called "total energy". Specific orbital energy is constant and independent of position.
In the following, it is assumed that the system is a two-body system and the orbiting object has a negligible mass compared to the larger (central) object. In real-world orbital mechanics, it is the system's barycenter, not the larger object, which is at the focus.
Specific orbital energy
, or total energy, is equal to K.E. − P.E. (kinetic energy − potential energy). The sign of the result may be positive, zero, or negative and the sign tells us something about the type of orbit:
* If the specific orbital energy
is positive the orbit is unbound, or open, and will follow a hyperbola
with the larger body the focus
of the hyperbola. Objects in open orbits do not return; once past periapsis their distance from the focus increases without bound. See radial hyperbolic trajectory
* If the total energy is zero, (K.E = P.E.): the orbit is a parabola
at the other body. See radial parabolic trajectory
. Parabolic orbits are also open.
* If the total energy is negative, K.E. − P.E. < 0: The orbit is bound, or closed. The motion will be on an ellipse
with one focus
at the other body. See radial elliptic trajectory
, free-fall time
. Planets have bound orbits around the Sun.
Transverse orbital speed
The transverse orbital speed is inversely proportional to the distance to the central body because of the law of conservation of angular momentum
, or equivalently, Kepler
's second law
. This states that as a body moves around its orbit during a fixed amount of time, the line from the barycenter to the body sweeps a constant area of the orbital plane, regardless of which part of its orbit the body traces during that period of time.
This law implies that the body moves slower near its apoapsis
than near its periapsis
, because at the smaller distance along the arc it needs to move faster to cover the same area.
Mean orbital speed
For orbits with small eccentricity
, the length of the orbit
is close to that of a circular one, and the mean orbital speed can be approximated either from observations of the orbital period
and the semimajor axis
of its orbit, or from knowledge of the mass
es of the two bodies and the semimajor axis.
where is the orbital velocity, is the length
of the semimajor axis
in meters, is the orbital period, and is the standard gravitational parameter
. This is an approximation that only holds true when the orbiting body is of considerably lesser mass than the central one, and eccentricity is close to zero.
When one of the bodies is not of considerably lesser mass see: Gravitational two-body problem
So, when one of the masses is almost negligible compared to the other mass, as the case for Earth
, one can approximate the orbit velocity
or assuming equal to the body's radius
Where is the (greater) mass around which this negligible mass or body is orbiting, and is the escape velocity
For an object in an eccentric orbit orbiting a much larger body, the length of the orbit decreases with orbital eccentricity
, and is an ellipse
. This can be used to obtain a more accurate estimate of the average orbital speed:
The mean orbital speed decreases with eccentricity.
Instantaneous orbital speed
For the instantaneous orbital speed of a body at any given point in its trajectory, both the mean distance and the instantaneous distance are taken into account:
where is the standard gravitational parameter
of the orbited body, is the distance at which the speed is to be calculated, and is the length of the semi-major axis of the elliptical orbit. This expression is called the vis-viva equation
For the Earth at perihelion
, the value is:
which is slightly faster than Earth's average orbital speed of , as expected from Kepler's 2nd Law
The closer an object is to the Sun the faster it needs to move to maintain the orbit. Objects move fastest at perihelion (closest approach to the Sun) and slowest at aphelion (furthest distance from the Sun). Since planets in the Solar System are in nearly circular orbits their individual orbital velocities do not vary much.
on an eccentric orbit
that reaches beyond Neptune
will be moving 54.6 km/s when from the Sun, 41.5 km/s when 1 AU from the Sun (passing Earth's orbit), and roughly 1 km/s at aphelion from the Sun.
[, where ''r'' is the distance from the Sun, and ''a'' is the major semi-axis.]
Objects passing Earth's orbit going faster than 42.1 km/s have achieved escape velocity
and will be ejected from the Solar System if not slowed down by a gravitational interaction
with a planet.
*Hohmann transfer orbit
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