What is the effect of air friction to the velocity of satellite? I have heard satellite's speed increases with air friction. But I'm in confusion how is it possible?

  • $\begingroup$ Comment to the question (v2): Do you have a reference for the claim? $\endgroup$ – Qmechanic Mar 9 '14 at 15:09

Air friction does increase the velocity of the satellite. sort of.

Assume for example, that the satellite is in a circular orbit with the appropriate velocity for the height it is at. Now it hits small patch of atmosphere, that slows the satellite a little (yes, slows).

The satellite is now at its apogee in an new elliptical orbit. As it proceeds in pure vacuum, it drops lower towards its perigee, and must, by conservation of both angular motion and energy, speed up.

At the moment of perigee, the satellite just happens to encounters another small patch of atmosphere, which again slows it a little. It just happens that the slowing is enough to give the satellite a circular orbit, at the new, lower height, and thus at a higher velocity, than it had at the start of this process.

The three steps of frictional slowing, orbital speed-up and frictional slowing combine to give an orbital speed-up

Orbital dynamics are weird...


I would expect the speed of the satellite to slow down upon reentry; not speed up. Most terrestrial satellites, even ones in low Earth orbit, do not encounter sufficient atmosphere or air resistance to significantly degrade their orbits so that they reenter the atmosphere. It is true that the Iridium satellites in LEO often do this. They have relatively brief service lives (a few years) before reentry occurs owing to their skirting the upper atmosphere, but this is the exception.

In order for atmospheric friction to increase the speed of a satellite, the atmosphere of the planet it is orbiting would need to be one that undergoes super rotation, or in other words, the atmosphere would have a velocity greater than the velocity of the satellite. This would be an unusual situation, to say the least, as the atmosphere would also tend to escape the planet.


Air friction (simply a form of friction) as we observe in our everyday life opposes the motion/state of the body (in this case motion of satellite ). It's true that air friction is responsible for decreasing the speed of the satellite, thereby decreasing the kinetic energy and ultimately the total energy of satellite.
But as we know that any form of system transits to lower energy state after losing energy (exactly the case of excited electrons coming back to ground state after losing energy in an atom).
As satellite also begins to revolve in a new orbit of smaller radius than earlier, thus by the conservation of angular momentum it must have higher angular velocity around the planet.
And increase in angular velocity means definitely increase in its velocity, v=rw.


protected by ACuriousMind Mar 6 at 18:05

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.