Orbital decay

Orbital decay is a gradual decrease of the distance between two orbiting bodies at their closest approach (the periapsis) over many orbital periods. These orbiting bodies can be a planet and its satellite, a star and any object orbiting it, or components of any binary system. If left unchecked, the decay eventually results in termination of the orbit when the smaller object strikes the surface of the primary; or for objects where the primary has an atmosphere, the smaller object burns, explodes, or otherwise breaks up in the larger object's atmosphere; or for objects where the primary is a star, ends with incineration by the star's radiation (such as for comets). Collisions of stellar-mass objects are usually accompanied by effects such as gamma-ray bursts and detectable gravitational waves.

Altitude of Tiangong-1 during its final year of uncontrolled reentry.[1]

Orbital decay is caused by one or more mechanisms which absorb energy from the orbital motion, such as fluid friction, gravitational anomalies, or electromagnetic effects. For bodies in low Earth orbit, the most significant effect is atmospheric drag.

Due to atmospheric drag, the lowest altitude above the Earth at which an object in a circular orbit can complete at least one full revolution without propulsion is approximately 150 km (93 mi) while the lowest perigee of an elliptical revolution is approximately 90 km (56 mi).


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