Plane of reference
A term used in celestial mechanics
Celestial mechanics
Celestial mechanics is the branch of astronomy that deals with the motions of celestial objects. The field applies principles of physics, historically classical mechanics, to astronomical objects such as stars and planets to produce ephemeris data. Orbital mechanics is a subfield which focuses on...

, the plane of reference is the plane by means of which orbital elements
Orbital elements
Orbital elements are the parameters required to uniquely identify a specific orbit. In celestial mechanics these elements are generally considered in classical two-body systems, where a Kepler orbit is used...

 (positions) are defined. The two main orbital elements that are measured with respect to the plane of reference are the inclination
Inclination in general is the angle between a reference plane and another plane or axis of direction.-Orbits:The inclination is one of the six orbital parameters describing the shape and orientation of a celestial orbit...

 and the longitude of the ascending node
Longitude of the ascending node
The longitude of the ascending node is one of the orbital elements used to specify the orbit of an object in space. It is the angle from a reference direction, called the origin of longitude, to the direction of the ascending node, measured in a reference plane...


Depending on the type of body being described, there are four different kinds of reference planes that are typically used:
  • Ecliptic
    The ecliptic is the plane of the earth's orbit around the sun. In more accurate terms, it is the intersection of the celestial sphere with the ecliptic plane, which is the geometric plane containing the mean orbit of the Earth around the Sun...

     or invariable plane
    Invariable plane
    The invariable plane of a planetary system, also called Laplace's invariable plane, is the plane passing through its barycenter perpendicular to its angular momentum vector. In the Solar System, about 98% of this effect is contributed by the orbital angular momenta of the four jovian planets...

     for planets, asteroids, comets, etc. within the solar system
    Solar System
    The Solar System consists of the Sun and the astronomical objects gravitationally bound in orbit around it, all of which formed from the collapse of a giant molecular cloud approximately 4.6 billion years ago. The vast majority of the system's mass is in the Sun...

    , as these bodies generally have orbits that lie close to the ecliptic.
  • Equator
    An equator is the intersection of a sphere's surface with the plane perpendicular to the sphere's axis of rotation and containing the sphere's center of mass....

     of orbited body for satellites with small semimajor axes
  • Local Laplace plane
    Laplace plane
    The Laplace plane or Laplacian plane of a planetary satellite, named after its discoverer Pierre-Simon Laplace , is a mean or reference plane about whose axis the instantaneous orbital plane of a satellite precesses....

     - satellites with intermediate-to-large semimajor axes
  • Plane tangent to celestial sphere
    Celestial sphere
    In astronomy and navigation, the celestial sphere is an imaginary sphere of arbitrarily large radius, concentric with the Earth and rotating upon the same axis. All objects in the sky can be thought of as projected upon the celestial sphere. Projected upward from Earth's equator and poles are the...

     - extrasolar objects

On the plane of reference, a zero-point must be defined from which the angles of longitude are measured. This is usually defined as the point on the celestial sphere where the plane crosses the prime hour circle (the hour circle
Hour circle
In astronomy, the hour circle of a celestial object is the great circle through the object and the celestial poles. It is perpendicular to the celestial equator....

 occupied by the First Point of Aries).

See also

  • Fundamental plane
    Fundamental plane (spherical coordinates)
    The fundamental plane in a spherical coordinate system is a plane which divides the sphere into two hemispheres. The latitude of a point is then the angle between the fundamental plane and the line joining the point to the centre of the sphere....

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