Orbit - History


Historically, the apparent motions of the planets were first understood geometrically (and without regard to gravity) in terms of epicycles, which are the sums of numerous circular motions. Theories of this kind predicted paths of the planets moderately well, until Johannes Kepler was able to show that the motions of planets were in fact (at least approximately) elliptical motions.

In the geocentric model of the solar system, the celestial spheres model was originally used to explain the apparent motion of the planets in the sky in terms of perfect spheres or rings, but after the planets' motions were more accurately measured, theoretical mechanisms such as deferent and epicycles were added. Although it was capable of accurately predicting the planets' position in the sky, more and more epicycles were required over time, and the model became more and more unwieldy.

The basis for the modern understanding of orbits was first formulated by Johannes Kepler whose results are summarised in his three laws of planetary motion. First, he found that the orbits of the planets in our solar system are elliptical, not circular (or epicyclic), as had previously been believed, and that the Sun is not located at the center of the orbits, but rather at one focus. Second, he found that the orbital speed of each planet is not constant, as had previously been thought, but rather that the speed depends on the planet's distance from the Sun. Third, Kepler found a universal relationship between the orbital properties of all the planets orbiting the Sun. For the planets, the cubes of their distances from the Sun are proportional to the squares of their orbital periods. Jupiter and Venus, for example, are respectively about 5.2 and 0.723 AU distant from the Sun, their orbital periods respectively about 11.86 and 0.615 years. The proportionality is seen by the fact that the ratio for Jupiter, 5.23/11.862, is practically equal to that for Venus, 0.7233/0.6152, in accord with the relationship.

Isaac Newton demonstrated that Kepler's laws were derivable from his theory of gravitation and that, in general, the orbits of bodies subject to gravity were conic sections, if the force of gravity propagated instantaneously. Newton showed that, for a pair of bodies, the orbits' sizes are in inverse proportion to their masses, and that the bodies revolve about their common center of mass. Where one body is much more massive than the other, it is a convenient approximation to take the center of mass as coinciding with the center of the more massive body.

Albert Einstein was able to show that gravity was due to curvature of space-time, and thus he was able to remove Newton's assumption that changes propagate instantaneously. In relativity theory, orbits follow geodesic trajectories which approximate very well to the Newtonian predictions. However there are differences that can be used to determine which theory describes reality more accurately. Essentially all experimental evidence that can distinguish between the theories agrees with relativity theory to within experimental measuremental accuracy, but the differences from Newtonian mechanics are usually very small (except where there are very strong gravity fields and very high speeds).

However, Newton's solution is still used for most purposes since it is significantly easier to use.

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