Sun-synchronous orbits with Google Earth

After our recent posts on rainbow plane offsets and the list of imaging satellites we thought it would be interesting to see what a sun-synchronous orbit actually looks like in Google Earth. We have previously written a post about sun-synchronous orbits and why most imaging satellites use them, but we only showed an approximate single orbit of the earth assuming the earth was not rotating. In reality, the earth rotates on its axis as well as going around the sun. A sun synchronous orbit is designed to drift slowly so as to keep in sync with the earth’s orbit around the sun. All this starts to get complicated when you want to plot an actual orbit. But we believe we have succeeded.


What the orbit of WorldView-3 looks like.

We used the equations from Wikipedia, which allow us to use the altitude and period of a given satellite to work out its orbit. For simplicity we start at latitude zero and longitude zero. We show the orbit for a period of approximately 24 hours. Some satellites, such as Landsat 8, have their orbits arranged so that they repeat the same path on a regular basis. Others do not.

All sun-synchronous orbits look very similar, with the differences in altitude being hardly noticeable. The most obvious difference is in the period, which affects the spacing of the orbits.


Red: Landsat 8 orbit. White: WorldView-3 orbit.

WorldView-3 has an altitude of 617 km and a period of 97 minutes.
Landsat 8 has an altitude of 703 km and a period of 98.8 minutes.

The diagonals from the north east to south west ( / ) are on the daylight side of the earth and the diagonals from south east to north west ( \ ) are on the night side.

To see the above orbits in Google Earth download this KML file. Alternatively, you can create your own orbit by entering the altitude and period below:


Sun-synchronous orbit creator.

Altitude: km

Period: minutes

About Timothy Whitehead

Timothy has been using Google Earth since 2004 when it was still called Keyhole before it was renamed Google Earth in 2005 and has been a huge fan ever since. He is a programmer working for Red Wing Aerobatx and lives in Cape Town, South Africa.






PLEASE NOTE: Google Earth Blog is no longer writing regular posts. As a result, we are not accepting new comments or questions about Google Earth. If you have a question, use the official Google Earth and Maps Forums or the Google Earth Community Forums.



PLEASE NOTE: Google Earth Blog is no longer writing regular posts. As a result, we are not accepting new comments or questions about Google Earth. If you have a question, use the official Google Earth and Maps Forums or the Google Earth Community Forums.