Illustration of Lagrange Points
Original Windows graphic, by Sarah Joseph

Lagrange Points

We could learn a lot about the solar wind if we could fix a satellite in a certain location in space. Changes in magnetic fields and particle flows could be measured. Most importantly, if the satellite is between Earth and the Sun, it could be an early warning system. It would let us know about any changes in the solar wind about an hour before they reached the Earth.

The problem with fixing a satellite in a certain location is that it is impossible. To resist gravity, a satellite has to be moving in an orbit. Nearly as helpful though would be if the satellite were to orbit the Sun in a one-year orbit. Then, it could keep a fixed position relative to the Earth. However, Kepler's laws show that any satellite closer to the Sun must orbit more quickly than the Earth. A satellite farther away would have an orbit longer than one year.

There is one way around this problem. The Lagrangian Point L1, named after French mathematician Joseph Lagrange, is one of five Lagrangian points in the Sun-Earth system. Also called libration points, these five points are places where a satellite could stay in a fixed position relative to the Earth as the Earth goes around the Sun. L1 is just inside Earth's orbit, the best place for an early warning system. At the L1 point, the Earth's gravity pulls in the opposite direction of the Sun's gravity. This cancels out the effects of the Sun's gravity, which allows the satellite to orbit the Sun with less velocity. Here the satellite can have an orbit of one year, matching the orbit of the Earth.

The ACE and SOHO spacecraft are both at L1, which means they will stay in a relatively constant position with respect to the Earth. This point is about one-hundredth of the distance to the Sun, or 1.5 million km from the Earth.

Last modified June 26, 2001 by Jennifer Bergman.

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