Five points determine a conic section

This post is the first in a series looking at determining an orbit. Lambert’s theorem is often summarized by saying you can determine an orbit from two observations. This statement isn’t true without further assumptions, assumptions I plan to make explicit.

A solution to the two-body problem is an orbit given by a conic section, and the general equation of a conic section in the plane is

So conic sections have five degrees of freedom: if you know five out of the six coefficients A, B, C, D, E, and F then the equation above determines the sixth coefficient. And if you know five points on a conic section, there is an elegant way to find an equation of the conic. Given points (xi, yi) for i = 1, …, 5, the following determinant yields an equation for the conic section.

\begin{vmatrix} x^2 & xy & y^2 & x & y & 1 \\ x_1^2 & x_1 y_1 & y_1^2 & x_1 & y_1 & 1 \\ x_2^2 & x_2 y_2 & y_2^2 & x_2 & y_2 & 1 \\ x_3^2 & x_3 y_3 & y_3^2 & x_3 & y_3 & 1 \\ x_4^2 & x_4 y_4 & y_4^2 & x_4 & y_4 & 1 \\ x_5^2 & x_5 y_5 & y_5^2 & x_5 & y_5 & 1 \\ \end{vmatrix} = 0

This means that five observations are enough to determine a conic section, and since Keplerian orbits are conic sections, such an orbit can be determined by five observations. How do we get from five down to two?

Astronomical observations have more context than merely points in a plane. These observations take place over time. So we have not only the positions of objects but their positions at particular times. And we know that the motion of an object in orbit is constrained by Kepler’s laws. In short, we have more data than (x, y) pairs; we have (x, y, t) triples plus physical constraints.

We also have implicit information, and future posts in this series will make this implicit information explicit. For example, suppose you’re planning a trajectory to send a probe to Mars. The path of the probe will essentially be an orbit around the sun. You can determine this orbit by two observations: the position of Earth when the probe leaves and the position of Mars when it arrives. This orbit is not simply an ellipse passing through two points. It is an ellipse with one focus at the sun. I intend to unpack this in a future post, or series of posts, making implicit data explicit.

When I write a series of blog posts, the post don’t always come out consecutively. I expect I’ll write about other topics in between posts in this series.

Update: The next post in the series considers Gibbs’ method of determining an orbit from three observations (plus two other pieces of information). The post after that is about Lambert’s theorem.

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