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orbit

Nonplanetary Orbits

The laws of planetary orbits also apply to the orbits of comets, natural satellites, artificial satellites, and space probes. The orbits of comets are very elongated; some are long ellipses, some are nearly parabolic (see parabola), and some may be hyperbolic. When the orbit of a newly discovered comet is calculated, it is first assumed to be a parabola and then corrected to its actual shape when more measured positions are obtained. Natural satellites that are close to their primaries tend to have nearly circular orbits in the same plane as that of the planet's equator, while more distant satellites may have quite eccentric orbits with large inclinations to the planet's equatorial plane. Because of the moon's proximity to the earth and its large relative mass, the earth-moon system is sometimes considered a double planet. It is the center of the earth-moon system, rather than the center of the earth itself, that describes an elliptical orbit around the sun in accordance with Kepler's laws. All of the planets and most of the satellites in the solar system move in the same direction in their orbits, counterclockwise as viewed from the north celestial pole; some satellites, probably captured asteroids, have retrograde motion, i.e., they revolve in a clockwise direction.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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