Sun-Synchronous Orbit vs. Geostationary Orbit

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  • 0:00 What Is an Orbit?
  • 0:58 Geostationary Orbt
  • 1:32 Sun-Synchronous Orbits
  • 2:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

After watching this video, you will be able to explain what sun-synchronous and geostationary orbits are and why they are useful. A short quiz will follow.

What Is an Orbit?

An orbit is a curved path of a celestial object around another celestial object due to the force of gravity. Orbits are everywhere in our universe. The Moon orbits the Earth, and the Earth orbits the Sun, and the Sun orbits around the center of the galaxy.

Put simply, an orbit happens because gravity is pulling the object towards the thing it's orbiting, but the object is also moving sideways. If that sideways motion is fast enough, it will stay at the same distance away despite gravity trying to pull it down.

There are many ways that an object can orbit another. It can orbit at different heights, at a constant speed or a varying speed, and an orbit can be circular or elliptical.

There are particular orbits that are most commonly used, because they serve useful functions. The two most common ones are geosynchronous orbits and sun-synchronous orbits.

Geostationary Orbits

A geosynchronous orbit is an orbit around the Earth, where the object orbits once per day. A common kind of geosynchronous orbit is called a geostationary orbit, where the object orbits above the same part of the Earth at all times.

This is an extremely useful type of orbit and is used for anything where a satellite needs to send or receive signals from the same part of the Earth all the time. It's used for cell phone satellites, television satellites, weather satellites, as well as some military satellites.

Sun-Synchronous Orbits

A sun-synchronous orbit is an orbit around the Earth, where the movement of the satellite always looks the same when viewed from the Sun. A satellite in a sun-synchronous orbit still orbits the Earth, but does so in such a way that over the course of the day, its distance to the Sun will change in a consistent pattern no matter the time of year.

Here's what a sun-synchronous orbit looks like at different times of year:

Sun-Synchronous Oribt
sun-synchronous orbit diagram

Notice that its position relative to the Sun varies across each orbit of the Earth, but the way that the orbit appears from the point of view of the Sun is the same no matter where the Earth is in its yearly orbit.

This kind of orbit also has many applications. The big advantage of sun-synchronous orbits is that the Earth will be illuminated in a similar way year round. For this reason, it's often used for weather and spy satellites, since they create images of the Earth. They're also used in ocean or atmospheric remote-sensing satellites, since they require sunlight to take their data.

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