Velocity: Orbital vs. Escape

While thinking about escape velocity recently, I wondered why orbital velocity wasn’t the same as escape velocity. The intuition was: consider an object in a circular orbit around the Earth at speed v. If the object speeds up just a smidge, then its centrifugal force increases, which pulls it slightly further away from Earth, where gravity is weaker, so it goes even further away, etc. It seems like a positive feedback chain reaction, the object getting progressively further away from E. That would imply that orbital velocity equals escape velocity, because if you go even a smidge faster, you’ll eventually escape orbit.

However, I worked out the equations and escape velocity is not equal to orbital velocity, but it’s about 41% faster (actually, square root of 2 faster). Upon further thought, I realized my earlier intuition missed a key point: as the object moving slightly faster goes further from Earth, its trajectory flattens out. When its trajectory is a circle, the force of Earth’s gravity is perpendicular to its motion, so it does not affect the object’s speed. But when the object’s trajectory flattens out, it’s no longer a circle, so Earth’s gravitational pull is no longer perpendicular to its motion. Some small portion of Earth’s gravitational pull is slowing it down! Then, of course, pulls it forward speeding it up as it comes around the other side of the ellipse.

So when the object speeds up a smidge, its orbit becomes elliptical. It has to go significantly faster than that to escape from Earth. In fact, about 41% faster since the difference is the square root of 2.

This also means orbits are stable: if the velocity changes a bit the shape of the orbit changes, but it stays in orbit. If escape velocity equaled orbital velocity, orbits would be unstable: the slightest bump would send it out into space or spiraling inward.

When the math contradicts intuition, it leads to re-thinking which can deepen one’s intuitive understanding.