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Glossary term: Orbit

Description: An orbit is the path of a moving object in a system around the center of mass of that system, caused by the mutual gravitational force between the objects in the system. For systems such as the Solar System, where the central body is much more massive than the other bodies, this center of mass lies inside the most massive object (in the case of the Solar System, the Sun). In a binary star system the center of mass the stars orbit often lies between the two stars. Orbits are typically elliptical in shape with the center of mass of the system lying at one focus of the ellipse. The size and shape of the orbit are defined by the semimajor axis and the eccentricity of the ellipse. More eccentric orbits have higher ellipticities.

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Term and definition status: This term and its definition is still awaiting approval

The OAE Multilingual Glossary is a project of the IAU Office of Astronomy for Education (OAE) in collaboration with the IAU Office of Astronomy Outreach (OAO). The terms and definitions were chosen, written and reviewed by a collective effort from the OAE, the OAE Centers and Nodes, the OAE National Astronomy Education Coordinators (NAECs) and other volunteers. You can find a full list of credits here. All glossary terms and their definitions are released under a Creative Commons CC BY-4.0 license and should be credited to "IAU OAE".

Related Media

The planet Jupiter with the two of the four Galilean moons (visible as bright dots) orbiting it.

Jupiter's Rotation, by Vishal Sharma, India

Caption: Third place in the 2021 IAU OAE Astrophotography Contest, category Galilean moons: Jupiter’s Rotation, by Vishal Sharma, India. This time-lapse beautifully shows the rotation of Jupiter and the passage of two Galilean moons on the right side of the frame. Jupiter completes one rotation in just under 10 hours and we see as the Great Red Spot makes its way from left to right. The two moons travel a noticeable fraction of their orbit in this short time. This image was taken in 2020 in the North of India.
Credit: Vishal Sharma/IAU OAE
License: CC-BY-4.0 Creative Comments Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) icons
The planet Jupiter, seen here as a bright disk, is orbited by the four Galilean moons, seen here as bright dots

Jupiter Moon's Movie2, by Nicolas Hurez, Paul-Antoine Matrangolo, and Carl Pennypacker, United States of America

Caption: Second place in the 2021 IAU OAE Astrophotography Contest, category Galilean moons. This sequence shows the orbit of the four Galilean moons around the planet Jupiter. Almost two entire orbits of the innermost moon, Io, can be seen, with the other moons (Europa and Ganymede, but in particular Callisto) being further away, orbiting noticeably slower. The images were obtained in 2018 with the Las Cumbres Global Observatory at different locations on Earth, allowing a continuous sequence of images over approximately half a week without gaps during the day. With clear skies and over the course of several nights, the motion of the Galilean moons can also be observed with binoculars (ideally steady your elbows on a surface).
Credit: Nicolas Hurez, Paul-Antoine Matrangolo and Carl Pennypacker/IAU OAE
License: CC-BY-4.0 Creative Comments Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) icons
Jupiter with coloured horizontal bands of clouds. The shadow of the moon Io is seen as a dark circle in the top left

Jupiter, Io and its shadow, by Ralf Burkart, Germany

Caption: First place in the 2021 IAU OAE Astrophotography Contest, category Galilean moons. This time-lapse of Jupiter taken in 2017 from Germany beautifully illustrates the transit of one of the Galilean moons, Io, in front of Jupiter. As this is simply a moon casting a shadow on a planet it is equivalent to a lunar eclipse on Earth observed from further away. While the shadow of the moon is clearly visible from the beginning, it might be difficult to spot the moon itself against the background of the beautiful atmospheric bands of Jupiter the first time the video is seen. Watching it repeatedly allows appreciating the rapid motion and rotation in this fantastic observation.
Credit: Ralf Burkart/IAU OAE
License: CC-BY-4.0 Creative Comments Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) icons
beta Pictoris b moves from bottom right towards the center of the image, reappearing 22 months later on the top left

The orbit of beta Pictoris b

Caption: This image shows the disk around the young star TW Hydrae. This star is only about 10 million years old, young enough that planets are still forming in a disk of gas and dust around it. This image was created using an array of submillimetre telescopes, each of which looks like a satellite dish. When the signals from these telescopes were combined by a central processing computer to make this image. The lighter and darker patches show areas of the disk where there is more or less dust respectively. The dark rings and bright rings are evidence that the dust in the disk has been sheparded into some orbits and away from others. This is likely because there is one or more planets that are still forming hidden in the disk. The whole image shows the disk aroung TW Hydrae out to a distance of about 70 astronomical units frm the central star. The two outer dark rings are separated from the central star by approximately the average distance between the Sun and Uranus and the average distance between the Sun and Pluto. The inner central hole appears to have been carved out by a planet orbiting TW Hydrae at a distance similar to the distance between the Earth and the Sun.
Credit: ESO/Lagrange/SPHERE consortium credit link
License: CC-BY-4.0 Creative Comments Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0) icons