Orbital decay

Orbital decay is the process of prolonged reduction in the height of a satellite's orbit.

This can be due to drag produced by an atmosphere due to frequent collisions between the satellite and surrounding air molecules. The drag experienced by the object is larger in the case of increased solar activity, because it heats and expands the upper atmosphere. For larger bodies tidal effects can cause orbital decay, and for even larger ones gravitational radiation can have an effect.

By friction

A principal example of orbital decay is the Earth’s atmosphere during solar maxima (sunspots). The Earth's atmosphere causes drag up to a hundred kilometers higher than the drag during solar minima.

Orbital drag resulting in a satellite falling onto a neighboring planet is described by the following sequence:

Large solar activity → Increases drag → Orbital speed decreases → less orbital height → Experiences denser atmosphere → increased heat → usually burns on entry

Orbital decay thus involves a positive feedback effect, where the more the orbit decays, the lower its altitude drops, and the lower the altitude, the faster the decay. Decay is also particularly sensitive to external factors of the space environment such as solar activity, which are not very predictable. The positive feedback on unpredictable stimuli makes orbital decay difficult to predict analytically, and makes prediction statistical instead.

Orbital decay exerts a significant effect at the altitudes of space stations, space shuttles and other manned Earth-orbit spacecraft, and satellites with relatively high orbits such as the Hubble Space Telescope. Space stations typically require a regular altitude boost to counteract orbital decay (see also orbital station-keeping). Uncontrolled orbital decay brought down the Skylab space station, and (relatively) controlled orbital decay was used to de-orbit the Mir space station. Orbital boosts for the International Space Station (ISS) are regularly needed, and are one limiting factor for the length of time the ISS can go between visits from transit spacecraft. Regular orbital boosts are also needed by the Hubble Space Telescope, though on a longer time scale, due to its much higher altitude. However, orbital decay is also a limiting factor to the length of time the Hubble can go without a maintenance rendezvous, currently planned for Aug. 28, 2008.

By tidal effects

An orbit can also decay by tidal effects when the orbiting body is large enough to raise a significant tidal bulge on the body it is orbiting and is either in a retrograde orbit or is below the synchronous orbit. The resulting tidal interaction saps momentum from the orbiting body and transfers it to the primary's rotation, lowering the orbit's altitude until frictional effects come into play.

Examples of satellites undergoing tidal orbital decay are Mars' moon Phobos, Neptune's moon Triton, and the extrasolar planet TrES-3.

By gravitational radiation


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