Space is closer than you think: What it means to be in orbit

SpaceX has made trips to orbit routine. Satellites in orbit are vital to the modern world. Here's what you need to know about how we send things whizzing around the Earth.

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Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
8 min read

SpaceX's Crew Dragon Resilience hurls sideways above the Earth as it approaches the International Space Station in 2020.


Space is just right there -- about 62 miles up, only a little farther away from you than San Jose is from San Francisco. Heck, you can get halfway to space in a balloon.

But the hardest part about space isn't so much getting there as staying there. That's where the idea of orbiting comes into play. Once you accomplish the hard work of getting a spacecraft into orbit, you can get years of use out of it as it loops more or less effortlessly around the planet on its own invisible track.

Orbits are "roadways in space," said Ajmal Yousuff, a Drexel University professor who studies aerospace vehicles. "You place a vehicle in space, and it stays there." That's a big step up from what billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson accomplished with their brief pops up above the the Earth in July.

Scientists figured out how orbits work centuries before humans could launch spacecraft, but there's lots for the rest of us to learn about these looping tracks above the Earth -- and good reason to learn it. With new government and private sector projects, space stands to become even more important than it was during the 1960s at the start of the Space Age.

Among other efforts, several companies are filling the heavens with internet-beaming satellites, new SpaceX rockets have begun sending astronauts to the International Space Station, the US military has founded its new Space Force, and NASA is planning missions to the moon and Mars.

Robert Rodriguez/CNET

Then there are the space tourists, starting with a crop of billionaires and their rocket companies: Branson and Virgin Galactic, Bezos and Blue Origin, and the even more ambitious Elon Musk and SpaceX. Branson just went to the edge of space on July 9, while Bezos headed a little higher on July 20, and Blue Origin has quibbled about whether Branson really flew high enough. 

SpaceX, which launched astronauts into orbit already, now has sent private citizens into space. On Sept. 15, it launched four people into orbit on the three-day Inspiration4 mission, making one full lap of Earth every 90 minutes or so. It's ambitions don't stop there: It plans to break humans free of Earth orbit altogether with a 2023 loop around the moon.

"It's the new Space Age -- and the new space race," said Ben Lamm, chief executive of software company Hypergiant. His company is working with the US Air Force on its Chameleon spacecraft, designed to be more adaptable, more independent and smarter than traditional spacecraft.

Let's start with Isaac Newton

If you want to understand orbits, a great place to start is Isaac Newton, whose research paved the way to modern science with explanations of motion, light and gravity. Newton's Treatise of the System of the World from 1685 elegantly encapsulates how orbits work with a thought experiment that requires no calculus whatsoever.

The idea, sometimes called Newton's cannonball, goes like this. Imagine shooting a stone horizontally from a tall mountain, gradually increasing the speed at which it's shot.

"The greater the velocity is with which it is projected, the farther it goes before it falls to Earth," Newton said. With increasing horizontal velocity, "it would describe an arc of 1, 2, 5, 10, 100, 1,000 miles before it arrived at the Earth, till at last exceeding the limits of the Earth, it should pass quite by without touching it."

In other words, the stone would fall at exactly the same rate that the Earth's surface receded because of the Earth's curvature. In Newton's experiment, a stone shot with the right speed would circle the Earth and smack right back into the mountain.

In 1685, Isaac Newton published a thought experiment showing how a projectile, shot with gradually higher speed from atop a mountain, would eventually orbit the Earth. Atmospheric drag makes this impossible on the real Earth, a point Newton acknowledged.

In 1685, Isaac Newton published a thought experiment showing how a projectile, shot with gradually higher speed from atop a mountain, would eventually orbit the Earth. Atmospheric drag makes this impossible on the real Earth, a point Newton acknowledged.

Smithsonian Institution

In the real world, friction with the Earth's atmosphere would slow the projectile long before it could circle the Earth and return to the mountain. But a few miles up into space, where air is scarce, that projectile would keep on orbiting with almost nothing to stop it.

Traveling fast sideways, not up

That brings us to the main difficulty of putting a satellite into orbit: getting enough horizontal velocity.

Whether you're watching enormous Saturn V rockets carrying humans to the moon or slender candlesticks launching smaller spacecraft, the rockets you see produce immense amounts of thrust. The vast majority of rocket fuel, though, propels the spacecraft laterally, not up. When you watch a rocket launch, the tilt toward the horizontal begins almost immediately after the craft leaves the launchpad.

How fast are those spacecraft going? The first artificial satellite, the Sputnik-1 that Russia launched in 1957, orbited at about 18,000 miles per hour over the surface of the Earth, or about 8 kilometers per second. The International Space Station whizzes by at a speed of 7.7 kmps, or about 17,000 mph.

In comparison, the supersonic Concorde passenger jet dawdled along only at about 1,500 mph.

It takes a lot more power for SpaceX to carry NASA astronauts to the ISS than it does for Blue Origin, the rocketry startup funded by Amazon Chief Executive Jeff Bezos , to pop its New Shepard rockets up and down without entering orbit.

The lower a spacecraft orbits, the faster it goes. That's why the Hubble Space Telescope, about 340 miles up (547km), circles the Earth every 95 minutes, but Global Positioning System satellites for navigation services, at 12,550 miles (20,200 km) up, take 12 hours for each orbit.

Getting a launch boost from Earth

The Earth's rotation gives rockets a healthy eastward fling, and the closer to the equator a launch is, the bigger the fling.

That's in part why US launch sites are located toward the southern parts of the country and why European spacecraft sometimes are launched from the Guiana Space Center in South America, just 5 degrees of latitude away from the equator. NASA considered launching moon missions from an equatorial site -- though the fling factor was secondary to fuel considerations matching the moon's orbit.

When SpaceX launches a rocket, it reserves some fuel to return the first stage of the rocket to Earth after its job getting a spacecraft into orbit is done. For launches from Cape Canaveral in Florida, the rocket stage lands on a drone ship floating on the Atlantic hundreds of miles to the east.

Low Earth orbit: Join the party

Space starts about 62 miles (100km) above us, though the boundary is somewhat arbitrary. (NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration put the boundary at just 50 miles for anyone who gets that far up.) A bit higher than that, reaching up to about 1,243 miles (2,000 km) above the Earth's surface, is the most popular part of space, called low Earth orbit, or LEO.

This is where you'll find the International Space Station along with satellites for weather forecasting, spying, television, imaging and, increasingly, satellite-based broadband. Every human who's been in space, aside from a few who made it to the moon's vicinity during NASA's Apollo missions, have hugged the earth in LEO.

The SpaceX Starlink service, now in beta testing, has put 1,800 satellites into its constellation so far, on its way to more than 2,200. Amazon's Project Kuiper plans 3,200 satellites. OneWeb envisions a whopping 48,000 satellites, though its near-term plans ran into a bankruptcy problem this year. Companies based in Canada, Russia and China plan more.

It's easier than ever to get to LEO, and that's triggered "a golden age of LEO innovation," said HawkEye 360 Chief Executive John Serafini, whose company helps government and military customers track radio signals to spot subjects like smugglers or lost boats.

NASA's Space Shuttle Endeavour orbits near the International Space Station in 2008. The ISS orbits somewhat higher than 200 miles above the Earth's surface, roughly the distance from New York to Boston.

NASA's Space Shuttle Endeavour orbits near the International Space Station in 2008. The ISS orbits somewhat higher than 200 miles above the Earth's surface, roughly the distance from New York to Boston.


"It would have been almost impossible for HawkEye 360 to build out a constellation of satellites 10 years ago," but SpaceX's reusable rockets and other improvements have lowered launch costs. "There are more opportunities to catch rides to orbit than ever before," he said.

Because LEO is relatively accessible, though, it's also where most of the Earth's space junk orbits. Friction with the upper fringes of the atmosphere drags a fraction of the detritus out of the way. Satellites must reckon with atmospheric friction, too, often nudging themselves to maintain proper orbit with gentle but conveniently solar-powered ion thrusters.

Heading higher to geosynchronous orbit

Medium Earth orbit, which reaches up to about 22,233 miles (35,780 km) above Earth, is a desert compared with LEO. But there are some notable denizens of this zone, in particular navigation satellite constellations.

The big sat-nav constellations, each with roughly two dozen satellites, are the United States' GPS, Europe's Galileo, Russia's Glonass and China's BeiDou. GPS, whose satellites orbit at about 12,500 miles up, is handy for smartphone navigation, but military use is also a top justification for the expense of launching and maintaining these satellites.

Just above the upper boundary of MEO is geosynchronous orbit, a sweet spot where the orbital period matches the Earth's rotation. A satellite in geosynchronous orbit above the equator, called geostationary orbit, appears in the exact same spot in the sky as viewed from Earth. 

That's particularly useful for communications because you can point a fixed ground station antenna directly at the satellite. However, radio transmission delays and signal strength are worse than with spacecraft in lower orbits.

Not all parking places in geosynchronous are created equal. Variations in the Earth's density nudge some satellites out of their spot, requiring occasional propulsion to keep them in line, Drexel's Yousuff said.

A 2009 launch of NASA's Space Shuttle Discovery shows the arcing path of a spacecraft headed to orbit. It's harder to get the lateral speed needed to stay in orbit than it is to get up to space, so rocket engines propel the spacecraft over the horizon.

2009 launch of NASA's Space Shuttle Discovery shows the arcing path of a spacecraft headed to orbit. It's harder to get the lateral speed needed to stay in orbit than it is to get up to space, so rocket engines propel the spacecraft over the horizon.


Circles and ellipses

Although many orbits are circular, some are elongated into more elliptical shapes that can slow a satellite's speed when it's farther away from the Earth.

Ellipses also are handy for changing orbits. NASA's Apollo missions began by launching the spacecraft into Earth's orbit, then a new rocket burn launched them into an elliptical orbit that stretched toward the moon, letting the astronauts coast most of the way. Another rocket burn inserted the spacecraft into lunar orbit.

One of Yousuff's favorite orbit types is elliptical. Most of Russia is well north of the equator, which limits geostationary satellites' usefulness. So the Russians came up with an alternative called the Molniya orbit.

With the Molniya orbit, a satellite whips over Australia at its closest point in orbit, called perigee, then naturally slows as it reaches its highest point above Moscow, called apogee. That way it spends much of its orbiting time usefully accessible.

The original Sirius satellite radio system used Molniya orbits, too, although after its acquisition of XM Satellite Radio to become Sirius XM Radio, it adopted XM's geostationary orbit approach.

There are plenty of other orbit types, too, like polar orbits that cross over both of the Earth's poles. And spacecraft that reach Earth's escape velocity can orbit the sun instead. The orbit of SpaceX's Starman just carried Elon Musk's publicity stunt close to Mars, for example. If today's commercial activity in low Earth orbit keeps lowering rocket launch costs, perhaps actual humans will follow him.

Watch this: Starlink space-based internet, explained