Orbital elements

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Orbital elements are the parameters required to uniquely identify a specific orbit. In celestial mechanics these elements are generally considered in classical two-body systems, where a Kepler orbit is used (derived from Newton's laws of motion and Newton's law of universal gravitation). There are many different ways to mathematically describe the same orbit, but certain schemes each consisting of a set of six parameters are commonly used in astronomy and orbital mechanics.

A real orbit (and its elements) changes over time due to gravitational perturbations by other objects and the effects of relativity. A Keplerian orbit is merely a mathematical approximation at a particular time.


Required parameters

Given an inertial frame of reference and an arbitrary epoch (a specified point in time), exactly six parameters are necessary to unambiguously define an arbitrary and unperturbed orbit.

This is because the problem contains six degrees of freedom. These correspond to the three spatial dimensions which define position (the x, y, z in a Cartesian coordinate system), plus the velocity in each of these dimensions. These can be described as orbital state vectors, but this is often an inconvenient way to represent an orbit, which is why Keplerian elements (described below) are commonly used instead.

Sometimes the epoch is considered a "seventh" orbital parameter, rather than part of the reference frame.

If the epoch is defined to be at the moment when one of the elements is zero, the number of unspecified elements is reduced to five. (The sixth parameter is still necessary to define the orbit; it is merely numerically set to zero by convention or "moved" into the definition of the epoch with respect to real-world clock time.)

Keplerian elements

The traditional orbital elements are the six Keplerian elements, after Johannes Kepler and his laws of planetary motion.
When viewed from an inertial frame, two orbiting bodies trace out distinct trajectories. Each of these trajectories has its focus at the common center of mass. When viewed from the non-inertial frame of one body only the trajectory of the opposite body is apparent; Keplerian elements describe these non-inertial trajectories. An orbit has two sets of Keplerian elements depending on which body used as the point of reference. The reference body is called the primary, the other body is called the secondary. The primary is not necessarily more massive than the secondary, even when the bodies are of equal mass, the orbital elements depend on the choice of the primary.

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