Scientists Say: Orbit
Orbit (noun, “OR-bit”)
This is the curved path that an object takes around a star, planet or moon. When an object has made one full trip around, it’s completed a single orbit. Just because it’s going around, though, doesn’t mean that an object’s orbit is a circle. Often, an object’s orbit is a little more oval. This is known as orbital eccentricity.
When scientists send up a probe to orbit a planet, moon or star, that probe is called an orbiter. Other spacecraft may fly by, stay for a very short time to collect information or just go ahead and land on a planet or moon. But an orbiter must be able to enter into an orbit and stay there, which is a pretty big challenge.
The word “orbit” comes from the Latin word “orbita.” That means “the path of a heavenly body.” But orbits don’t have to be heavenly. In physics, we say the negatively-charged electrons of an atom orbit about its center.
In a sentence
There are 12 new moons around Jupiter, and one is an oddball orbiting in the wrong direction.
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atom The basic unit of a chemical element. Atoms are made up of a dense nucleus that contains positively charged protons and uncharged neutrons. The nucleus is orbited by a cloud of negatively charged electrons.
eccentricity (in astronomy or geometry) The degree to which a shape (or orbit) is elongated and not purely circular.
electron A negatively charged particle, usually found orbiting the outer regions of an atom; also, the carrier of electricity within solids.
Jupiter (in astronomy) The solar system’s largest planet, it has the shortest day length (10 hours). A gas giant, its low density indicates that this planet is composed of light elements, such as hydrogen and helium. This planet also releases more heat than it receives from the sun as gravity compresses its mass (and slowly shrinks the planet).
moon The natural satellite of any planet.
orbit The curved path of a celestial object or spacecraft around a star, planet or moon. One complete circuit around a celestial body.
orbital eccentricity The degree to which a planet’s orbit deviates from a perfect circle.
orbiter A spacecraft designed to go into orbit, especially one not intended to land.
physics The scientific study of the nature and properties of matter and energy. Classical physics is an explanation of the nature and properties of matter and energy that relies on descriptions such as Newton’s laws of motion. Quantum physics, a field of study that emerged later, is a more accurate way of explaining the motions and behavior of matter. A scientist who works in such areas is known as a physicist.
planet A celestial object that orbits a star, is big enough for gravity to have squashed it into a roundish ball and has cleared other objects out of the way in its orbital neighborhood. To accomplish the third feat, the object must be big enough to have pulled neighboring objects into the planet itself or to have slung them around the planet and off into outer space. Astronomers of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) created this three-part scientific definition of a planet in August 2006 to determine Pluto’s status. Based on that definition, IAU ruled that Pluto did not qualify. The solar system now includes eight planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.
star The basic building block from which galaxies are made. Stars develop when gravity compacts clouds of gas. When they become dense enough to sustain nuclear-fusion reactions, stars will emit light and sometimes other forms of electromagnetic radiation. The sun is our closest star.