Common Misconceptions about Satellite Orbits

Orbital parameters and elements (Credit: NASA)

“Standard orbit” is a phrase used frequently in a popular sci-fi franchise. Problem is, there is no such thing as “standard orbit.” But that’s okay. This is not a sin… maybe someone will define a “standard orbit” for spaceships one day.

But there are definitions galore for all the different orbits today and these definitions are more than words—they imply physical properties and capabilities and getting them wrong will take anyone who has a little knowledge about the topic right out of the story. The one I encounter most frequently, using the term geosynchronous improperly. Geosynchronous (often abbreviated GEO) has a specific meaning, so combining it with another phrase like “hovering 155 mi above earth” is a horrible sin.

You don’t need fancy math to get this right, just an understanding of the common terms and definitions. There is an entire field of Orbital Mechanics and I could write more than a book or two on all the terminology. In this article, however, I’ll cover the two most common words I hear in real-life and fiction that people outside of the aerospace industry (and a few inside) get wrong.

Source: Common Misconceptions about Satellite Orbits – Dan Koboldt

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