Solar Alignment or Earth Orbiting Satellite
Name: Lewis S.
Can a rotating object in earth orbit maintain axial
alignment with the sun? For example: a rotating parabolic photonic
collector, a space station, a solar observing satellite.
Sort of, and for a while. The forces on an object in orbit are pretty
weak, normally, but there are forces. Any drag created by whatever
atmosphere is left at the altitude of the object could cause the
object to rotate if its cross section is nonuniform. If the object
is electrically conducting, there may be some current induced by
motion through the Earth's magnetic field, and this current will
produce a weak magnetic field that will tend to reorient the object.
But the biggest force is probably tidal. Imagine that the object is
made of sand grains glued together, and then imagine that the glue
disappears. Each grain of sand is now actually in its own orbit:
those closer to Earth are in slightly tighter, faster orbits than
the orbit of the object's center of mass, so they will not stay in
place forever. The force that would have caused this motion is
still in play, even though the object is *not* made of unglued sand
The fact that the object is rotating makes the situation more
complicated, but does not remove the forces tending to reorient the
Yes, there is no first-order effect trying to move the axis of rotation,
so if it is pointed at the sun it will not take much maintenance energy to
keep it pointed at the sun.
But there are always drifts and weak higher-order effects,
and the Earth's annual orbit around the sun
changes the subjective direction of the sun at about 1 degree per day.
So it will take some feedback mechanism determine the right direction
and occasionally provide modest amounts of torque in that direction.
Of course, this means that the satellite does not get to keep any one face
pointed steadily at earth below.
This can give rise to satellites that are part-rotating, part-stationary.
Some of our tiny pico-satellites try to stay in "sun-synchronous orbit",
always over the day/night line on the Earth below them.
That way they are always in steady sunlight, and have an easier time
maintaining a steady temperature.
But I think orbit-corrections would be required to stay that way for very
The higher the orbit, the more margin you have for staying in sunlight.
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Update: June 2012