Orbits in the Solar System


Figure 3.10 Solar System Orbits. We see the orbits of typical comets and asteroids compared with those of the planets Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, and Jupiter (black circles). Shown in red are three comets: Halley, Kopff, and Encke. In blue are the four largest asteroids: Ceres, Pallas, Vesta, and Hygeia.

Two points in any orbit in our solar system have been given special names. The place where the planet is closest to the Sun (helios in Greek) and moves the fastest is called the perihelion of its orbit, and the place where it is farthest away and moves the most slowly is the aphelion. For the Moon or a satellite orbiting Earth (gee in Greek), the corresponding terms are perigee and apogee. (In this book, we use the word moon for a natural object that goes around a planet and the word satellite to mean a human-made object that revolves around a planet.)

Orbits of the Planets
Today, Newton’s work enables us to calculate and predict the orbits of the planets with marvelous precision. We know eight planets, beginning with Mercury closest to the Sun and extending outward to Neptune. The average orbital data for the planets are summarized in Table 3.2. (Ceres is the largest of the asteroids, now considered a dwarf planet.)

According to Kepler’s laws, Mercury must have the shortest orbital period (88 Earth-days); thus, it has the highest orbital speed, averaging 48 kilometers per second. At the opposite extreme, Neptune has a period of 165 years and an average orbital speed of just 5 kilometers per second.

All the planets have orbits of rather low eccentricity. The most eccentric orbit is that of Mercury (0.21); the rest have eccentricities smaller than 0.1. It is fortunate that among the rest, Mars has an eccentricity greater than that of many of the other planets. Otherwise the pre-telescopic observations of Brahe would not have been sufficient for Kepler to deduce that its orbit had the shape of an ellipse rather than a circle.

The planetary orbits are also confined close to a common plane, which is near the plane of Earth’s orbit (called the ecliptic). The strange orbit of the dwarf planet Pluto is inclined about 17° to the ecliptic, and that of the dwarf planet Eris (orbiting even farther away from the Sun than Pluto) by 44°, but all the major planets lie within 10° of the common plane of the solar system.

Orbital Data for the Planets
Planet Semimajor Axis (AU) Period (y) Eccentricity
Mercury 0.39 0.24 0.21
Venus 0.72 0.6 0.01
Earth 1 1.00 0.02
Mars 1.52 1.88 0.09
(Ceres) 2.77 4.6 0.08
Jupiter 5.20 11.86 0.05
Saturn 9.54 29.46 0.06
Uranus 19.19 84.01 0.05
Neptune 30.06 164.82 0.01