Satellites and Kepler's Laws

Read this text, which includes visual diagrams of Kepler's Laws of Planetary Motion, which describe the motion of planets around the sun. We can also apply these laws to explain the motion of satellites around planets.

  1. Kepler's First Law of Planetary Motion states that planets move around the sun in an ellipse shaped orbit with the sun at the center of the ellipse (see Figure 6.29).
  2. Kepler's Second Law of Planetary Motion states that planets move so that a point on the planet sweeps an equal area in equal times (see Figure 6.30).
  3. Kepler's Third Law of Planetary Motion refers to the relationship between the time it takes for two planets to revolve around the sun, and their distances from the sun:  \frac{T_1^2}{T_2^2}=\frac{r_1^3}{r_2^3} , where  T_{1} and  T_{2} are periods of orbit while  r_{1} and  r_{2} are radii for planets one and two.

We can use Kepler's Third Law to solve problems to determine the period for planetary or satellite orbits. See a worked example of using the equation from Kepler's Third Law to determine the period of a satellite in Example 6.7. Pay attention to the derivation of Kepler's Third Law using the concept of centripetal forces.

Derivation of Kepler’s Third Law for Circular Orbits

We shall derive Kepler's third law, starting with Newton's laws of motion and his universal law of gravitation. The point is to demonstrate that the force of gravity is the cause for Kepler's laws (although we will only derive the third one).

Let us consider a circular orbit of a small mass m around a large mass M, satisfying the two conditions stated at the beginning of this section. Gravity supplies the centripetal force to mass m. Starting with Newton's second law applied to circular motion,

 F_{\mathrm{net}}=m a_{\mathrm{c}}=m \dfrac{v^{2}}{r}.

The net external force on mass m is gravity, and so we substitute the force of gravity for F_{\text {net }} :

 G \dfrac{m M}{r^{2}}=m \dfrac{v^{2}}{r}.

The mass m cancels, yielding

 G \dfrac{M}{r}=v^{2}.

The fact that m cancels out is another aspect of the oft-noted fact that at a given location all masses fall with the same acceleration. Here we see that at a given orbital radius r, all masses orbit at the same speed. (This was implied by the result of the preceding worked example.) Now, to get at Kepler's third law, we must get the period T into the equation. By definition, period T is the time for one complete orbit. Now the average speed v is the circumference divided by the period-that is,

v=\dfrac{2 \pi r}{T}.

Substituting this into the previous equation gives

G \dfrac{M}{r}=\dfrac{4 \pi^{2} r^{2}}{T^{2}}.

Solving for T^{2} yields

T^{2}=\dfrac{4 \pi^{2}}{G M} r^{3}.

Using subscripts 1 and 2 to denote two different satellites, and taking the ratio of the last equation for satellite 1 to satellite 2 yields

\dfrac{T_{1}^{2}}{T_{2}^{2}}=\dfrac{r_{1} \, ^{3}} {r_{ 2} \,^{3}}.

This is Kepler's third law. Note that Kepler's third law is valid only for comparing satellites of the same parent body, because only then does the mass of the parent body M cancel.

Now consider what we get if we solve T^{2}=\dfrac{4 \pi^{2}}{G M} r^{3} for the ratio r^{3} / T^{2}. We obtain a relationship that can be used to determine the mass M of a parent body from the orbits of its satellites:

\dfrac{r^{3}}{T^{2}}=\dfrac{G}{4 \pi^{2}} M.

If r and T are known for a satellite, then the mass M of the parent can be calculated. This principle has been used extensively to find the masses of heavenly bodies that have satellites. Furthermore, the ratio r^{3} / T^{2} should be a constant for all satellites of the same parent body (because \left.r^{3} / T^{2}=G M / 4 \pi^{2}\right). (See Table 6.2).

It is clear from Table 6.2 that the ratio of r^{3} / T^{2} is constant, at least to the third digit, for all listed satellites of the Sun, and for those of Jupiter. Small variations in that ratio have two causes -uncertainties in the r and T data, and perturbations of the orbits due to other bodies. Interestingly, those perturbations can be-and have been-used to predict the location of new planets and moons. This is another verification of Newton's universal law of gravitation.

Making Connections

Newton's universal law of gravitation is modified by Einstein's general theory of relativity, as we shall see in Particle Physics. Newton's gravity is not seriously in error - it was and still is an extremely good approximation for most situations.

Einstein's modification is most noticeable in extremely large gravitational fields, such as near black holes. However, general relativity also explains such phenomena as small but long-known deviations of the orbit of the planet Mercury from classical predictions.