From order to chaos in earth satellite orbits

Ioannis Gkolias, Jérôme Daquin, Fabien Gachet, Aaron J. Rosengren

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We consider Earth satellite orbits in the range of semimajor axes where the perturbing effects of Earth's oblateness and lunisolar gravity are of comparable order. This range covers the medium-Earth orbits (MEO) of the Global Navigation Satellite Systems and the geosynchronous orbits (GEO) of the communication satellites. We recall a secular and quadrupolar model, based on the Milankovitch vector formulation of perturbation theory, which governs the long-term orbital evolution subject to the predominant gravitational interactions. We study the global dynamics of this two-and-a-half degrees-of-freedom Hamiltonian system by means of the fast Lyapunov indicator (FLI), used in a statistical sense. Specifically, we characterize the degree of chaoticity of the action space using angle-averaged normalized FLI maps, thereby overcoming the angle dependencies of the conventional stability maps. Emphasis is placed upon the phase-space structures near secular resonances, which are of primary importance to the space debris community. We confirm and quantify the transition from order to chaos in MEO, stemming from the critical inclinations and find that highly inclined GEO orbits are particularly unstable. Despite their reputed normality, Earth satellite orbits can possess an extraordinarily rich spectrum of dynamical behaviors and, from a mathematical perspective, have all the complications that make them very interesting candidates for testing the modern tools of chaos theory.

Original languageEnglish
Article number119
JournalAstronomical Journal
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • celestial mechanics
  • chaos
  • methods: analytical
  • planets and satellites: dynamical evolution and stability
  • planets and satellites: general


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