Keplerian Orbital Elements

1. All planets move in elliptical orbits, with the sun at one focus.
2. A line that connects a planet to the sun sweeps out equal areas in equal times.
3. The square of the period of any planet is proportional to the cube of the semimajor axis of its orbit.

Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion (formulated 1609-1619)

Okay, this is probably a bit niche, even by my standards, but it’s part of a longer project. I eventually want to write some more about the Apollo spacecraft, and the orbits they followed on their way to, and return from, the Moon. And the problem with that is that (for various good reasons) NASA didn’t document these orbits with a list of “orbital elements” that would allow the spacecraft trajectories in the vicinity of the Earth to be plotted easily. Instead, the flight documentation includes long tables of “state vectors”, listing the position and velocity of the spacecraft at various times—these are more accurate, but unwieldy to deal with. So in a future post I’m going to write about how to extract orbital elements from a few important state vectors. But first I need to describe the nature and purpose of the orbital elements themselves. Which is what I’m going to do in this post, hopefully enlivened by explanations of how the various orbital elements came by their rather odd names.

But first, the “Keplerian” bit. Johannes Kepler was the person who figured out that the planets move around the sun in elliptical orbits, and who codified the details of that elliptical motion into the three laws which appear at the head of this post. In doing that, he contributed to a progressive improvement in our understanding, which began with the old Greek geocentric model, which placed the Earth at the centre of the solar system with the planets, sun and moon moving in circles around it. This was replaced by Nicolaus Copernicusheliocentric model, which placed the sun at the centre, but retained the circular orbits. Kepler’s insight that the orbits are elliptical advanced things farther. (Next up was Isaac Newton, who provided the Theory of Universal Gravitation which explained why the orbits are ellipses.)

So Keplerian orbits are simple elliptical orbits.* They’re the sort of orbits objects would follow if subject to gravity from a single point source. In that sense, they’re entirely theoretical constructs, because real orbits are disturbed away from the Keplerian ideal by all sorts of other influences. But if we look at orbits that occur under the influence of one dominant source of gravity, and look at them for a suitably short period of time, then simple Keplerian ellipses serve us well enough and make the maths nice and simple. (And that’s what I’ll be doing with my Apollo orbits in later posts.)

Before going on, I’ll introduce a bit of necessary jargon. Henceforth, I’ll refer to the thing doing the orbiting as the satellite, and the thing around which it orbits as the primary. In Kepler’s original model of the solar system, the “satellites” are the planets, and the primary is the Sun; for my Apollo orbits, the satellites will be the spacecraft, and the primary is the Earth. Kepler’s First Law tells us that the primary sits at one focus of the satellite’s elliptical orbit. Geometrically, an ellipse has two foci, placed on its long axis at equal distances either side of the centre; only one of these is important for orbital mechanics. Pleasingly, focus is the Latin word for “fireplace” or “hearth”, so it seems curiously appropriate that the first such orbital focus ever identified was the Sun. Kepler’s Second Law tells us, in geometrical terms, that the satellite moves fastest when it’s at its closest to the primary, and slowest when it’s at its farthest. I’ll come to the Third Law a little later.

The Keplerian orbital elements are a set of standard numbers that fully define the size, shape and orientation of such an orbit. The name element comes from Latin elementum, which is of obscure etymology, but was used as a label for some fundamental component of a larger whole. We’re most familiar with the word today because of the chemical elements, which are the fundamental atomic building blocks that underlie the whole of chemistry.


The first pair of orbital elements define the size and shape of the elliptical orbit. (They’re called the metric elements, from Greek metron, “measure”.)

For size, the standard measure is the semimajor axis. An ellipse has a long axis and a short axis, at right angles to each other, and they’re called the major and minor axes. As its name suggests, the semimajor axis is just half the length of the major axis—the distance from the centre of the ellipse to one of its “ends”. It’s commonly symbolized by the letter a. The corresponding semiminor axis is b.

To put a number on shape, we need a measure of how flattened (or otherwise) our ellipse is—so some way of comparing a with b. For mathematical reasons, the measure used in orbital mechanics is the eccentricity, symbolized by the letter e. This has a rather complicated definition:

e=\sqrt{1-\frac{b^{2}}{a^{2}}}

But once we’ve got e, we can easily understand why it’s called eccentricity, because the distance from the centre of the ellipse to one of its foci turns out to be just a times e. Our word eccentricity comes from Greek ek-, “out of”, and kentron, “centre”. So it’s a measure of how “off-centre” something is. And multiplying the semimajor axis by the eccentricity does exactly that—tells us how far the primary lies from the geometric centre of the ellipse.

The metric orbital elements, a and e
Click to enlarge

For elliptical orbits, eccentricity can vary from zero, for a perfect circle, to just short of one, for very long, thin ellipses. (At e=1 the ellipse becomes an open-ended parabola, and at e>1 a hyperbola.)

Before I move on from the two metric elements, I should mention another concept that’ll be important later. The line of the major axis, which runs through the centre of the ellipse and the foci (marked in my diagram above), has another name specific to astronomy and orbital mechanics. It’s called the line of the apsides. Apsides is the plural of Greek apsis, which was the name of the curved sections of wood that were joined together to make the rim of a wheel. The elliptical orbit is deemed to have two apsides of special interest—the parts of the orbit closest to the primary (the periapsis) and farthest from the primary (the apoapsis), and these are joined by the line of the apsides.


Then there are three angular elements, which specify the orbit’s orientation in space. They’re specified relative to a reference plane and a reference longitude. A good analogy for this is how we measure latitude and longitude on Earth. To specify a unique position, we measure latitude north or south of the equatorial plane, and longitude relative to the prime meridian at Greenwich. For orbits around the Earth, like my Apollo orbits, the reference plane is the celestial equator, which is just the extension of the Earth’s equator into space. The reference longitude is called the First Point of Aries, for reasons I won’t go into here—it’s the point on the celestial equator where the sun appears to cross the equator from south to north at the time of the March equinox, and I wrote about it in more detail in my post about the Harvest Moon.

The first angular element is the inclination, symbolized by the letter i, which is the angle between the orbital plane and the reference plane. The meaning of its name is blessedly obvious, because it’s the same as in standard English.

Following its tilted orbit, the satellite will pass through the reference plane twice as it goes through one complete revolution—once heading north, and once heading south. These points are called the nodes of the orbit, from Latin nodus, meaning “knot” or “lump”. The northbound node is called the ascending node, and the southbound node is (you guessed) the descending node—names that reflect the “north = upwards” convention of our maps. The angle between the reference longitude and the ascending node of the orbit, measured in the reference plane, is called the longitude of the ascending node, symbolized by a capital letter omega (Ω), and it’s our second angular element.

Those two elements tell us the orientation of the orbital plane in space—how it’s tilted (inclination) and which direction it’s tilted in (longitude of the ascending node). Finally, we need to know how the orbit is positioned within its orbital plane—in which direction the line of the apsides is pointing, in other words. To do that job, we have our third and final angular element, the argument of the periapsis, which is the angle, measured in the orbital plane, between the ascending node and the periapsis, symbolized by a lower-case Greek omega (ω). The meaning of argument, here, goes back to the original sense of Latin arguere, “to make clear”, “to show”. That sense of argument found its way into mathematical usage, to designate what we’d now think of in computing terms as an “input variable”—a number that you need to know in order to solve an equation and get a numerical answer.

The angular orbital elements
Click to enlarge

Those five elements exactly define the size, shape and orientation of the orbit, and are collectively called the constant elements. In addition to those five, we need a sixth, time-dependent element, which specifies the satellite’s position in orbit at some given time. (The specified time, symbolized by t or t0, is called the epoch, from Greek epoche, “fixed point in time”.) There are actually a number of different time-dependent elements in common use, but the standard Keplerian version is the true anomaly, which is the angle (measured at the primary) between the satellite and the periapsis. Different texts use different symbols for this angle, most commonly a Greek nu (ν) or theta (θ).

To understand why it’s called an “anomaly”, we need to go back to the original geocentric model of the solar system. Astronomers knew very well that the planets didn’t move across the sky at the constant rate that would be expected if they were adhering to some hypothetical sphere rotating around the Earth. Sometimes Mars, Jupiter and Saturn even turned around and moved backwards in the sky! These irregularities in motion were therefore called anomalies, from the Greek anomalos, “not regular”. And there were two sorts of anomaly. The First or Zodiacal Anomaly was a subtle variation in the speed of movement of a planet according to its position among the background stars. The Second or Solar Anomaly was a variation that depended on the planet’s position relative to the Sun. Copernicus explained the Second Anomaly by placing the Sun at the centre of the solar system, because he realized that much of the apparent irregularity of planetary motion was due to the shifting perspective created by the Earth’s motion around the Sun. The First Anomaly persisted, however, until Kepler’s Second Law showed how it was due to a real acceleration as a planet moved through periapsis, followed by a deceleration towards apoapsis. Because this “anomaly” was a real effect linked to orbital position, the word anomaly became attached to the angular position of the orbiting body. And if you’re wondering why it’s called the “true” anomaly, that’s because there are a couple of other time-dependent quantities in use, which are computationally convenient and which are also called “anomalies”. But the true anomaly is the one that measures the satellite’s real position in space.


And those are the six standard orbital elements, together with their odd names. However, we generally need to know one more thing. Kepler’s Third Law applies to all orbits—the larger the semimajor axis, the longer it takes for the satellite to make one complete revolution, with a cube-square relationship. But for a given orbital size, the time for one revolution also depends on the mass of the primary. A satellite must move more quickly to stay in orbit around a more massive primary. So we need to specify the orbital period of revolution (variously symbolized with P or T) if we are to completely model our satellite’s behaviour. The word comes from Greek peri-, “around”, and odos, “way”.

So—six elements and a period. That’s what I’ll be aiming to extract from the Apollo documentation when I return to this topic next time.


* Parabolic and hyperbolic “orbits” are, strictly speaking, trajectories, since they don’t follow closed loops. The word orbit comes from the Latin orbis, “wheel”—so something that is round and goes round.
Periapsis and apoapsis are general terms that apply to all orbits. Curiously, they can have other specific names, according to the primary around which the satellite orbits. Most commonly you’ll see perigee and apogee for orbits around the Earth, and perihelion and aphelion for orbits around the Sun. See my post about the word perihelion for more detail.

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2 thoughts on “Keplerian Orbital Elements”

  1. When I first learned this in school, the second law was the one that fascinated me to the point I came back after class and the teacher drew it all out on the blackboard for me.
    Having said that, reading through the third law still sounds like Charlie Brown’s parents talking to my mind. Though I’m sure when I buckle down and read through your explaination, it will all become clear. (Guess I should have done that first before posting.)

  2. I don’t actually attempt to explain the Third Law, but you can hand-wave your way towards it by realizing that, for a circular orbit, “centrifugal force” must balance the force of gravity. Setting the formula for the acceleration due to gravity equal to the formula for the radial acceleration of a revolving object, and rearranging terms, reveals that the angular velocity squared must be inversely proportional to the radius cubed, implying that the period squared must be in direct proportion to the cube of the radius. But deriving the formula for centrifugal force in the first place needs a bit of calculus, and I can’t see an intuitive way to generalize the result to elliptical orbits.

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