Orbital plane (astronomy)

Orbital plane (astronomy)

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All of the planets, comets, and asteroids in the solar system are in orbit around the Sun. All of those orbits line up with each other making a semi-flat disk called the orbital plane. The orbital plane of an object orbiting another is the geometrical plane
Plane (mathematics)
In mathematics, a plane is a flat, two-dimensional surface. A plane is the two dimensional analogue of a point , a line and a space...

 in which the orbit is embedded
Embedding
In mathematics, an embedding is one instance of some mathematical structure contained within another instance, such as a group that is a subgroup....

. The orbital plane is defined by two parameters, Inclination
Inclination
Inclination in general is the angle between a reference plane and another plane or axis of direction.-Orbits:The inclination is one of the six orbital parameters describing the shape and orientation of a celestial orbit...

 (i) and Longitude of the ascending node
Longitude of the ascending node
The longitude of the ascending node is one of the orbital elements used to specify the orbit of an object in space. It is the angle from a reference direction, called the origin of longitude, to the direction of the ascending node, measured in a reference plane...

 (Ω). Three non-collinear
Line (geometry)
The notion of line or straight line was introduced by the ancient mathematicians to represent straight objects with negligible width and depth. Lines are an idealization of such objects...

 points in space suffice to determine the orbital plane. A common example would be: the center of the heavier object, the center of the orbiting object and the center of the orbiting object at some later time.

By definition the inclination
Inclination
Inclination in general is the angle between a reference plane and another plane or axis of direction.-Orbits:The inclination is one of the six orbital parameters describing the shape and orientation of a celestial orbit...

 of a planet in the solar system
Solar System
The Solar System consists of the Sun and the astronomical objects gravitationally bound in orbit around it, all of which formed from the collapse of a giant molecular cloud approximately 4.6 billion years ago. The vast majority of the system's mass is in the Sun...

 is the angle
Angle
In geometry, an angle is the figure formed by two rays sharing a common endpoint, called the vertex of the angle.Angles are usually presumed to be in a Euclidean plane with the circle taken for standard with regard to direction. In fact, an angle is frequently viewed as a measure of an circular arc...

 between its orbital plane and the orbital plane of the Earth
Earth
Earth is the third planet from the Sun, and the densest and fifth-largest of the eight planets in the Solar System. It is also the largest of the Solar System's four terrestrial planets...

 (the ecliptic
Ecliptic
The ecliptic is the plane of the earth's orbit around the sun. In more accurate terms, it is the intersection of the celestial sphere with the ecliptic plane, which is the geometric plane containing the mean orbit of the Earth around the Sun...

). In other cases, for instance a moon orbiting another planet, it is convenient to define the inclination of the moon
Moon
The Moon is Earth's only known natural satellite,There are a number of near-Earth asteroids including 3753 Cruithne that are co-orbital with Earth: their orbits bring them close to Earth for periods of time but then alter in the long term . These are quasi-satellites and not true moons. For more...

's orbit as the angle between its orbital plane and the planet's equator.

Artificial satellites around the Earth


For launch vehicles and artificial satellites, the orbital plane is a defining parameter of an orbit; as in general, it will take a very large amount of propellant
Propellant
A propellant is a material that produces pressurized gas that:* can be directed through a nozzle, thereby producing thrust ;...

 to change the orbital plane of an object. Other parameters, such as the orbital period
Orbital period
The orbital period is the time taken for a given object to make one complete orbit about another object.When mentioned without further qualification in astronomy this refers to the sidereal period of an astronomical object, which is calculated with respect to the stars.There are several kinds of...

, the eccentricity
Orbital eccentricity
The orbital eccentricity of an astronomical body is the amount by which its orbit deviates from a perfect circle, where 0 is perfectly circular, and 1.0 is a parabola, and no longer a closed orbit...

 of the orbit and the phase of the orbit are more easily changed by propulsion systems.

Orbital planes of satellites are perturbed by the non-spherical nature of the Earth's gravity
Earth's gravity
The gravity of Earth, denoted g, refers to the acceleration that the Earth imparts to objects on or near its surface. In SI units this acceleration is measured in metres per second per second or equivalently in newtons per kilogram...

. This causes the orbital plane of the satellite's orbit to slowly rotate around the Earth, depending on the angle the plane makes with the Earth's equator. For planes that are at a critical angle this can mean that the plane will track the Sun
Sun
The Sun is the star at the center of the Solar System. It is almost perfectly spherical and consists of hot plasma interwoven with magnetic fields...

 around the Earth, forming a Sun-synchronous orbit
Sun-synchronous orbit
A Sun-synchronous orbit is a geocentric orbit which combines altitude and inclination in such a way that an object on that orbit ascends or descends over any given point of the Earth's surface at the same local mean solar time. The surface illumination angle will be nearly the same every time...

.

A launch vehicle's launch window
Launch window
Launch window is a term used in spaceflight to describe a time period in which a particular launch vehicle must be launched. If the rocket does not launch within the "window", it has to wait for the next window....

is usually determined by the times when the target orbital plane intersects the launch site.