Want to stay on top of all the space news? Follow @universetoday on Twitter
An orbiter is another name for deep space probes. Specifically those that collect data on planets, asteroids, and other celestial objects in our solar system. These probes have helped to expand our knowledge of our solar system giving us direct data on the appearance, composition, and other important characteristics of celestial bodies. Most orbiters go on long term missions lasting several years. This makes sense since even the fast traveling probe would take anywhere from a couple of years to decades to reach designated targets in the solar system.
Most orbiters work like conventional satellites that orbit earth. However they take a bit longer before the reach their designated position. When an orbiter is launched, that is just the first part of its journey. It then has to use the gravity of other planets depending on the distance of the intended destination. This process is called a gravity sling shot. Essentially the orbiter makes a very eccentric orbit to build up speed. When it reaches the necessary speed it then breaks free of orbit and heads towards the celestial body it is intended to observe. This can happen more than once depending on where the celestial object is located. One benefit of using this process is that is saves fuel as well as add additional velocity.
The final process that puts an orbiter into orbit around its intended target is aerobraking. Simply put the orbiter has to slow down from the tremendous speeds it achieves. Since there is little friction in space the craft has to use the atmosphere of a planet to slow down. The air molecules in the upper layers of the planet’s atmosphere help build up the necessary friction to help it slow down. In the case of fly bys a space probe will use aerobraking to slow down and collect data and then use a gravity sling shot to resume its journey.
NASA is famous for sending several orbiters. The most famous is the Voyager probes which were among the first to start collecting data on the Gas Giants of the Outer Solar system. The journey for the first Voyager probe lasted about 20 years before it finally went beyond communications and left our solar system.
We’ve recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about the space shuttle. Listen here, Episode 127: The US Space Shuttle.