I was analyzing a LEO satellite with polar orbit for work purposes. I am relatively new to the field of Satellite orbits. I know that TLE can give information about the current & future orbits depending on Epoch time.

I have a MATLAB simulation which uses the TLE & gives me a Satellite trajectory for a period of time. The satellite that I am observing has a orbital period of 106 minutes. But I just now realized that since earth is also rotating, each time a LEO completes an orbit, it is at a different place. So, I want to know after how much time & how many orbit periods later does a LEO satellite come back to the exact same place & repeat the trajectory.

If, however, it isn't the case in actual satellite orbits because of various forces acting on it, then in a hypothetical case of a spherical earth model & assuming that no forces act on the Satellite including atmospheric drag, & gravity of Sun, moon & planets, after how much time does the ground track repeat?

I can run the simulation for a long time & do trial & error to find after how many hours/days/months/years it comes back to the same place & repeats its trajectory but that will take a lot of time & inefficient. Can TLE or any other satellite data give me that information?


1 Answer 1


Interesting question!

Abstracted/simplified case:

Suppose a spacecraft is orbiting around a planet with no atmosphere, a perfect spherically symmetric mass distribution, such that the gravitational field can be expressed as that of a point at the origin using Newton's Shell theorem, and there are no other forces or bodies in the universe.

A repeat ground track will occur only when the ratio of the rotation periods of the planet and spacecraft is a rational number, i.e. the ratio of two integers.

Then the period of a repeat ground track will be the shorter of the two periods times the larger of the two integers, or vice versa. A simple way to think about this is to just imagine the moment the satellite crosses the equator, or passes x=0 (asuming z is the rotation axis of the planet). You have to be a little careful with your imagination if it's a purely polar orbit, but the same math works.

For example, say the planet rotates every 1440 minutes, and the satellite orbits around it in space with a period of 115.2 minutes.

Find the integers $m, n$ such that

$m \times 1440 - n \times 115.2 = 0$

The solution would be $m, \ n = 2, \ 25$, and so the period would be two days, or $2 \times 1444$ or $25 \times 115.2$ minutes.

If there is no exact solution for two integers, then there is no exact repeat ground track!

The real world:

The Earth's gravity field is lumpy, so circular or pure Kepler elliptical orbits don't really exist in nature. There are gravitational effects from the Moon and the Sun, and drag effects from the atmosphere in LEO.

So "never" is the short answer.

Here is a GIF of an animation I once made of a hypothetical ground track of a satellite in a similar to the ISS for example. I used math from the Technical Details subsection Wikipedia article Sun-synchronous_orbit including the precession of the nodes due to Earth's oblateness. It's a simple calculation and does not include many effects

I calculated for 15,00,000 seconds (about 17 days).

While there are certain altitudes that create an apparent repeat ground track for a short time, it's just an illusion.

See also this answer to the question How long does it take for ISS to travel over all possible places of the world one time? for more to think about.

below: low res GIF of snippet of a simple animation I once made of a ground track for ~17 days of a circular orbit of varying altitude, includes precession of nodes due to J2.

enter image description here

For fun, here's how to do it in Python. Skyfield introduced a .subpoint() method in version 1.3 (it's now at 1.4) so getting the ground track of satellites is easy!

Here is the ground track of the ISS for the first seven days of June 2018:

enter image description here

import numpy as np
import matplotlib.pyplot as plt
from skyfield.api import Loader, Topos, EarthSatellite

# https://www.celestrak.com/NORAD/elements/stations.txt
TLE = """1 25544U 98067A   18157.92534723  .00001336  00000-0  27412-4 0  9990
2 25544  51.6425  69.8674 0003675 158.7495 276.7873 15.54142131116921"""

L1, L2 = TLE.splitlines()

load = Loader('~/Documents/fishing/SkyData')  # avoids multiple copies of large files
ts   = load.timescale()

data    = load('de421.bsp')
earth   = data['earth']
ts      = load.timescale()

minutes = np.arange(60. * 24 * 7)         # seven days
time    = ts.utc(2018, 6, 1, 0, minutes)  # start June 1, 2018

ISS     = EarthSatellite(L1, L2)

subpoint = ISS.at(time).subpoint()

lon      = subpoint.longitude.degrees
lat      = subpoint.latitude.degrees
breaks   = np.where(np.abs(lon[1:]-lon[:-1]) > 30)  #don't plot wrap-around

lon, lat    = lon[:-1], lat[:-1]
lon[breaks] = np.nan
plt.plot(lon, lat)
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    $\begingroup$ Just to get clarity, even if, hypothetically, we take a spherical earth model & assume that no other forces like moon, sun, planets gravity, even atmospheric drag acts on the satellite, then also a ground track never repeats again, ever? $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 7, 2018 at 9:03
  • $\begingroup$ @KharoBangdo okay in that case it's a simple math problem. If you edit your question and add this as an additional part to your question, I'll add an additional answer to that. This makes the whole thing more complete for future readers. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Jun 7, 2018 at 9:05
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ added that part to the question. I have framed it as best as I could, if you can edit the framing to be better than do so $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 7, 2018 at 9:13
  • $\begingroup$ @KharoBangdo I know you are using MatLab, but in case you are interested in propagating TLEs in Python instead, there's a handy and easy to use package. I've added an example. $\endgroup$
    – uhoh
    Commented Jun 7, 2018 at 10:12
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ In the industry, we wouldn't ask for exact matches, we'd ask for matches within a certain offset (generally a few kilometers to either side would make hardly any difference, but this is application-dependent). I think I might have an old college homework assignment somewhere that was essentially about that; I'll see if I can dig it up. $\endgroup$
    – Erin Anne
    Commented Jun 9, 2018 at 5:49

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