What is an elliptical orbit? (with photos)

The planets in the Solar System follow an elliptical orbit around the sun.

The term “elliptical orbit” is used in astrophysics and astronomy to describe the oval-shaped path of a celestial body. Earth, like all other planets in the Solar System, follows this type of orbit around the Sun. Shape is created by the varying attraction of forces, such as gravity, on two objects, such as the Sun and a planet.

According to experts, there are four types of orbital paths that a celestial body can follow. In a hyperbolic orbit, a body is pulled around another object, but retains enough energy to move away from the object by a different path, forming a “U”. A spiral impact orbit occurs when a body is pulled in an inevitable spiral towards an object with a greater attraction until it collides with that object. Circular deaths require a perfect balance of forces to allow a body to follow an exact circular path around another object. An elliptical orbit occurs when a circular orbit is interrupted by forces, such as the gravity of nearby objects, and follows a relatively stable but non-circular path.

All planets in the Solar System have elliptical orbits, although their eccentricity varies.

For thousands of years, scientists believed that the planets of the Solar System followed circular orbits with the Sun at the center. In the early 17th century, German astronomer Johannes Kepler determined that this was not the case. According to Kepler’s work, the Earth and other planets have elliptical orbits, with the Sun serving as a focal point rather than the exact center. Kepler’s discoveries allowed the development of accurate predictions of where each planet would be at any given time, greatly advancing the scientific understanding of the Solar System.

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Although variations in pulling force are necessary to make an elliptical circular orbit, this amount can be extremely small. The Earth is notable for having a nearly circular path, interrupted only by an incredibly small eccentricity. The exact elliptical path is known to vary over large periods of time, however, and over a period of about 100,000 years, the path will become more circular, then more oval. The orbital path is also affected by two other factors, called precession and tilt, which affect the alignment and position of the Earth’s axis.

Celestial objects in an elliptical orbit, like the Earth, move at different speeds at different points in their orbit. According to Kepler, an object with this type of orbit covers the same distance in the same time at any point in the orbit. Because of the oval shape, this means that the body must travel faster to cover the same distance at certain points in the orbit. For example, the Earth travels at a higher speed when it is closer to the Sun in January than when it is further away in July.

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