Among the many things that NASA engineers consider when designing a satellite is its orbit, including which one is best for the data it will collect and how much maneuvering it will take to keep it there. Throughout the design process, engineers make calculations using the same laws of physics that were developed to explain the orbits of planets. This series of articles details the development of the science of orbital mechanics, catalogs the most common orbits of Earth-observing satellites, and shadows the engineers in mission control as they work to keep a satellite in orbit.
Few ideas have had a greater impact on humanity than our quest to understand why things orbit across the heavens. Planetary Motion: The History of an Idea That Launched a Scientific Revolution describes how the study of the motion of the planets led to the development of the basic theories of motion and gravity that are used to calculate a satellite’s orbit.
Satellites are designed to orbit Earth in one of three basic orbits defined by their distance from the planet. Within these three orbits are many variations, each intended to provide the best view of Earth for the type of information the satellite is collecting. Catalog of Earth Satellite Orbits describes the most common orbits for Earth-observing satellites.
Finally, in Flying Steady: Mission Control Tunes Up Aqua’s Orbit, the Earth Observatory peeks in on the Earth Observing System Mission Control Center as flight engineers adjust the path of NASA’s Aqua satellite to keep it in the proper orbit for collecting scientific data.