This animation shows elliptical orbits with different eccentricities. It also shows how the Sun is at the focus of an ellipse, and some of the math behind elliptical orbits.
Click on image for full size
Original animation by Windows to the Universe staff (Randy Russell).
You may think that most objects in space that orbit something else move in
circles, but that isn't the case. Although some objects follow circular orbits,
most orbits are shaped more like "stretched out" circles or ovals. Mathematicians
and astronomers call this oval shape an ellipse. All of the planets in our
Solar System, many satellites, and most moons move along elliptical orbits.
An ellipse can be very long and thin, or it can be quite round - almost like
a circle. Scientists use a special term, "eccentricity", to describe how round
or how "stretched out" an ellipse is. If the eccentricity of an ellipse is
close to one (like 0.8 or 0.9), the ellipse is long and skinny. If the eccentricity
is close to zero, the ellipse is more like a circle.
Earth moves around the Sun in an elliptical orbit. Earth's orbit is almost
a perfect circle; its eccentricity is only 0.0167! Pluto has the least circular
orbit of any of the planets in our Solar System. Pluto's orbit has an eccentricity
The Sun isn't quite at the center of a planet's elliptical orbit.
An ellipse has a point a little bit away from the center called the "focus".
The Sun is at the focus of the ellipse. Because the Sun is at the focus,
not the center, of the ellipse, the planet moves closer to and further away
from the Sun every orbit. The close point in each orbit is called perihelion.
The far away point is called aphelion.
Johannes Kepler, a German astronomer
who lived in the early 17th century, discovered some important laws about orbits.
Law of Planetary Motion states
that planets move in elliptical orbits. His Second
Law explains how planets
move faster when they are close to the Sun (near perihelion) than when they
are far away (near aphelion).
If you want to know more about the mathematics of ellipses, take a look at
the advanced version of this page.
Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!
Our online store
on science education, classroom activities in The Earth Scientist
specimens, and educational games
You might also be interested in:
You may think that most objects in space that orbit something else move in circles, but that isn't the case. Although some objects follow circular orbits, most orbits are shaped more like "stretched...more
Pluto is a frigid ball of ice and rock that orbits far from the Sun on the frozen fringes of our Solar System. Considered a planet, though a rather odd one, from its discovery in 1930 until 2006, it was...more
Kepler's second law he again discovered by trial and error. Kepler realized that the line connecting the planet and the Sun sweeps out equal area in equal time. Look at the diagram to the left. What Kepler...more
The solar system is made up of the Sun, the // Call the planets count function defined in the document head print_planet_count('planets'); planets and // Call the planets count function defined in the...more
Mechanics is the term used to refer to one of the main branches of the science of physics. Mechanics deals with the motion of and the forces that act upon physical objects. We need precise terminology...more
Eris is a dwarf planet in our Solar System. Eris was one of the first three objects classified as a dwarf planet, along with Pluto and Ceres. Eris was first spotted in January 2005. Eris is a large sphere...more
The Orionid meteor shower happens every year in October. Meteor showers are times when you can see many meteors or "shooting stars" in one night. There are several meteor showers each year. Most meteor...more