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  • Launching a satellite into orbit requires consideration of a number of major science ideas. These include gravity, circular motion and atmospheric drag.

    Atmospheric drag

    Satellites need to be placed in orbit high above the Earth’s atmosphere so that the drag of the atmospheric gases doesn’t make the orbiting satellite slow down.

    An altitude of 100 km has been adopted by the United Nations as a working definition of where the Earth’s atmosphere ends and space begins. This is called the Kármán line after the Hungarian-born aerospace pioneer Theodore von Kármán. He calculated at this height an aircraft would have to travel at the same speed as an orbiting satellite (7.85 km/s, about 24 times the speed of sound) in order to have enough aerodynamic lift to maintain its height.

    Making a satellite orbit at that height, however, is impractical due to the atmospheric drag of the very thin atmosphere, so most satellites are placed into orbit well above the Kármán line at altitudes between 350 and 1,500 km.

    There is gravity in space

    A lot of people think that there is no gravity above the Earth’s atmosphere. The truth is that gravity keeps pulling an object towards the centre of the Earth even if the object is far above the Earth’s atmosphere. The force of gravity pulling you towards Earth at an altitude of 100 km compared to that acting on you if you were on a 10 m high diving board only varies by about 20 N.

    We know this from Newton’s universal law of gravitation, which takes the form

    F = G mEmO/d2


    F = force of gravity in newtons

    G = the universal gravitation constant

    mE = mass of the Earth

    mO= mass of the object

    d = distance between the object centres.

    Using this formula shows that the force of gravity acting on a 70 kg person on a 10 m diving board is 688 N compared to 667 N for the person at an altitude of 100 km above the Earth’s surface.

    Energy needed to reach an altitude of 100 km

    The work that needs to be done on a 1 kg object to reach a height of 100 km above the Earth’s surface is calculated in the following way.

    work done = gravitational force x vertical height

    = (1 x 9.8) N x (100 x 1,000) m

    = 980,000 joules

    If we account for the fact that gravity is decreasing very slightly as distance from the Earth increases, the corrected value is 967,000 joules.

    To supply this amount of energy per kilogram of load, you would need a very powerful and well designed rocket. Since the rocket and fuel also have mass, there needs to be additional fuel to lift the mass of the fuel and rocket into space.

    But there is still a huge problem. Even though this 1 kg mass has reached space, it would still fall back to Earth because there is still a very strong pull of gravity attracting it towards the centre of the Earth.

    Speed of orbit

    To balance the strong gravitational pull, the 1 kg mass must be given additional energy to place it in orbit around the Earth. An object will fall back to Earth unless it has enough orbital speed.

    To calculate the orbital speed needed, we combine Newton’s law of universal gravitation with a circular motion equation. The net result of this is an equation of the form

    V=√[(G x ME)/R]


    V = orbital speed

    G = the universal gravitation constant

    mE = mass of the Earth

    R = the distance from the centre of the Earth to the object in orbit.

    To keep the 1 kg mass in orbit at an altitude of 100 km, an orbital speed of 7.85 km/s is needed.

    The extra energy needed to make an object travel fast enough to stay in orbit is more than 30 times as much as the energy needed to lift it to an altitude of 100 km.

    This means that, even though it takes nearly a million joules of energy to lift a 1 kg mass to an altitude of 100 km, it takes over 30 million joules of extra energy to give it enough speed to stay in orbit around the Earth.

    Rockets need to be big enough to carry enough fuel to provide all of the energy needed to reach the correct altitude and speed. Rockets that carry satellites into orbit need to be incredibly large.

    Related content

    Learn about the Rocket Lab orbital launch site at Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand and why they've chosen this site to launch rockets into orbit.

    Activity ideas

    In the Rocket launch challenge activity students use a rocket launch simulation. They change parameters such as mass, thrust and drag to make a rocket go as high as possible and launch a payload 400 km above the ground.

    Now that you’re a rocket scientist, try your hand at building a fit-for-purpose satellite to be launched by the Electron rocket.

      Published 27 March 2013, Updated 21 July 2021 Referencing Hub articles
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