Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page NEWTON Teachers Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Frequently Asked Questions Referencing NEWTON About NEWTON About Ask A Scientist Education At Argonne Velocity of a Spacecraft
Name: Unknown
Status: N/A
Age: N/A
Location: N/A
Country: N/A
Date: Around 1993


Question:
How is acceleration the velocity of a spacecraft measured?



Replies:
Measuring the Doppler shift of emission lines in the light of nearby stars would tell you your relative velocities to those stars.

John Hawley


The previous answer does not seem like a practical method of measuring speeds well. Stars are not monochromatic sources that one can get an accurate "Doppler shift" from. Stars and galaxies are moving in all directions, so there is no real fixed point of reference.

When people talk about measuring the acceleration or velocity of spacecraft, they usually are referring to ordinary satellites and spacecraft in orbit around Earth or on a planetary mission.

These spacecraft get velocity, position, and acceleration information by sending and receiving radio signals from ground stations. Using Doppler shift, time delay, and very-long-baseline information, the position, speed, and acceleration of a spacecraft can be measured very accurately, relative to the earth. The speed and position of the earth are known very accurately too, and combining the information lets you know what your motion is in the solar system.

If you are in your spacecraft flying around by yourself and want to know your acceleration, you can use an on-board accelerometer. These are very accurate. By keeping track of acceleration, you can determine your velocity. If you want to know absolute acceleration in the framework of the universe, this will not work because the accelerometer will not sense the effect of a nearby planet which you might be orbiting. Your accelerometer will read zero whether you are in free space or orbiting something.

On the other hand, if you are in your spacecraft flying around by yourself and want to know where you are and how fast you are going, you can (in theory) use optical methods. By sighting on nearby planets and stars with an accurate telescope, you can determine where you are. Of course you need a huge database of information that tells exactly where convenient stars and planets are in space and time, and a way of triangulating yourself.

Bob Erck



Click here to return to the Physics Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (help@newton.dep.anl.gov), or at Argonne's Educational Programs

NEWTON AND ASK A SCIENTIST
Educational Programs
Building 360
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: June 2012
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory