A satellite is any object that is orbiting the earth, sun or other massive body. Satellites can be categorized as natural satellites or man-made satellites. The moon, the planets and comets are examples of natural satellites. Accompanying the orbit of natural satellites are a host of satellites launched from earth for purposes of communication, scientific research, weather forecasting, intelligence, etc. Whether a moon, a planet, or some man-made satellite, every satellite's motion is governed by the same physics principles and described by the same mathematical equations.

The fundamental principle to be understood concerning satellites is that a satellite is a projectile. That is to say, a satellite is an object upon which the only force is gravity. Once launched into orbit, the only force governing the motion of a satellite is the force of gravity. Newton was the first to theorize that a projectile launched with sufficient speed would actually orbit the earth. Consider a projectile launched horizontally from the top of the legendary Newton's Mountain - at a location high above the influence of air drag. As the projectile moves horizontally in a direction tangent to the earth, the force of gravity would pull it downward. And as mentioned in Lesson 3, if the launch speed was too small, it would eventually fall to earth. The diagram at the right resembles that found in Newton's original writings. Paths A and B illustrate the path of a projectile with insufficient launch speed for orbital motion. But if launched with sufficient speed, the projectile would fall towards the earth at the same rate that the earth curves. This would cause the projectile to stay the same height above the earth and to orbit in a circular path (such as path C). And at even greater launch speeds, a cannonball would once more orbit the earth, but now in an elliptical path (as in path D). At every point along its trajectory, a satellite is falling toward the earth. Yet because the earth curves, it never reaches the earth.

So what launch speed does a satellite need in order to orbit the earth? The answer emerges from a basic fact about the curvature of the earth. For every 8000 meters measured along the horizon of the earth, the earth's surface curves downward by approximately 5 meters. So if you were to look out horizontally along the horizon of the Earth for 8000 meters, you would observe that the Earth curves downwards below this straight-line path a distance of 5 meters. For a projectile to orbit the earth, it must travel horizontally a distance of 8000 meters for every 5 meters of vertical fall. It so happens that the vertical distance that a horizontally launched projectile would fall in its first second is approximately 5 meters (0.5*g*t2). For this reason, a projectile launched horizontally with a speed of about 8000 m/s will be capable of orbiting the earth in a circular path. This assumes that it is launched above the surface of the earth and encounters negligible atmospheric drag. As the projectile travels tangentially a distance of 8000 meters in 1 second, it will drop approximately 5 meters towards the earth. Yet, the projectile will remain the same distance above the earth due to the fact that the earth curves at the same rate that the projectile falls. If shot with a speed greater than 8000 m/s, it would orbit the earth in an elliptical path. Velocity, Acceleration and Force Vectors

The motion of an orbiting satellite can be described by the same motion characteristics as any object in circular motion. The velocity of the satellite would be directed tangent to the circle at every point along its path. The acceleration of the satellite would be directed towards the center of the circle - towards the central body that it is orbiting. And this acceleration is caused by a net force that is directed inwards in the same direction as the acceleration. his centripetal force is supplied by gravity -