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Q: Why does gravity make some things orbit and some things fall?

Physicist: This subtlety was one of the great insights of Newton; that the “falling apples” force and the “circling planets” force are one and the same.

Whether gravity pulls an object into orbit or just “makes it fall” depends on how the object is moving. Basically, every object wants to follow some kind of orbital path. If you toss a ball, even that ball is following an orbital path. If that path happens to intersect the ground, then we say “the object fell”. If that path doesn’t intersect the ground, then we say it’s in orbit.

When in free-fall, all that the ball “knows” is that there’s some gravity around. When it hits the ground it’s as surprised as anything else. The path that any tossed or falling object follows is just the tip of a very elliptical orbital path that, if the Earth’s mass were all crammed together in a point, would eventually bring the object back. Unless you were to throw the ball at a couple thousand mph, it would take about half an hour to complete the loop.

So the only difference between a satellite falling back to Earth and staying in orbit is whether or not the satellite’s orbital path intersects the surface of the Earth. So, Douglas Adams was right; “Flying is simple. You just throw yourself at the ground and miss.”

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