Creative Education
2013. Vol.4, No.8A, 6-8
Published Online August 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Geometrical Approach to Kepler’s Laws of Planetary Motion
Yusuke Yajima
College of Education, Ibaraki University, Mito, Japan
Received June 17th, 2013; revised July 17th, 2013; accepted July 25th, 2013
Copyright © 2013 Yusuke Yajima. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons At-
tribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited.
The elementary pen-and-string method to draw ellipsis has been devised to examine planetary orbits on
the basis of the Kepler’s laws. Besides qualitative features of the orbits, quantitative dependence of the
orbital shape on the quantities appearing in the Kepler’s laws can also be analyzed with simple geometri-
cal procedures. The method thus provides a relevant intermediate step to students prior to the study of the
rigorous theory of central force problems.
Keywords: Kepler; Planet; Orbit; Ellipse
Kepler’s laws of planetary motion are usually stated as (Fig-
ure 1):
1) The planetary motion follows an elliptic orbit with the Sun
at one of its two foci,
2) The area swept by a line joining a planet and the Sun dur-
ing a unit time interval, areal velocity, is constant, and,
3) The cube of the semimajor axis of the elliptic orbit is pro-
portional to the square of the orbital period, i.e. one year.
Kepler’s laws are among the most well-known scientific laws
that frequently appear in articles on popular sciences. Despite
of their ubiquity, however, the laws require university level
knowledge on analytical geometry to treat quadratic curves and
some expertise on handling differential equations to solve
physical problems if they are to be fully understood on the
bases of more fundamental physical principles, i.e. Newtonian
dynamics. This mathematical aloofness often discourages those,
say secondary school students, who are not satisfied with
knowing only what are stated in Kepler’s laws but interested
further in how they work and why they stand. Therefore, it is of
much pedagogic importance to provide some intermediate ap-
proach that can turn Kepler’s laws into congenial working
knowledge without recourse to university level mathematics.
As a possible candidate for such approach, a method based
solely on elementary geometry is discussed here. The method
has been devised by noting that the key notion of the Kepler’s
laws is the elliptic nature of planetary orbits, and, accordingly,
any simple method to handle ellipses, if appropriately related to
the principles of mechanics, could make the laws viable even
without the knowledge on university level mathematics and
Motivated by R. P. Feynman’s solely geometric proof of Ke-
pler’s first law (Goodstein & Goodstein, 1999), a
non-mathematical scheme comprising a series of geometrical
construction has been proposed to analyze major features of
planetary orbits (Okabe & Yajima, 2004; Yajima & Okabe,
2006). Here an alternative but much simpler approach based on
a familiar method to draw ellipses is discussed.
Figure 1.
Quantities appearing in Kepler’s
laws of planetary motion.
The most familiar and virtually unique elementary method to
draw an ellipse is to use a pair of pins, a string, and a pen; also
a paper is of course necessary on which the ellipse is drawn.
The string is tied to the pins at each end and the pins are firmly
pushed into the paper separately. The separation of the pins is
thus shorter than the length of the string. The pen, when moved
so as to keep pulling the string taut, traces an ellipse. By using
2a long string and setting the distance of pins to 2ae (e < 1:
orbit’s eccentricity), one can draw an ellipse with its two foci
on the pins and having semimajor and semiminor axes of a and
1ba e
, respectively (Figure 2). This method to construct
an ellipse is referred to as “pen-and-string” method hereafter.
Next we summarize some important properties of the elliptic
orbit of planets moving under the gravitational potential,
Vr kr . (1)
For details of the discussion to follow, any standard textbook
on classical mechanics should be consulted (Goldstein, 1980).
Semimajor axis a of the orbit becomes,
where E (<0) is the total mechanical energy. The angular mo-
mentum vector L and the planet mass m determine semiminor
axis b as,
Figure 2.
Pin-and-string method as applied to the drawing of pla-
netary orbits under various conditions.
, (3)
and semi latus rectum as,
1la e
, (4)
where l = |L|.
Quantities that appear in the Kepler’s laws, the orbital period,
one year, 32
and the areal velocity 2
can then be expressed respectively by the above parameters
characterizing the orbital shape, a, b, and l, as,
, (5)
. (6)
When the pen-and-string method is used to draw planetary
orbits, the length of a string tied to pins, 2a, determines the
orbital period (Equation (5)) and, though not appeared explic-
itly in the Kepler’s laws, the total mechanical energy of the
motion (Equation (2)). And orbits with various areal velocities
can be drawn by changing the separation of the pins as in Fig-
ure 2 (Equation (6)).
For instance, one can draw orbits having the same areal ve-
locity A but different orbital periods T, if one uses strings with
different length and adjusts the pin separation so as to keep the
semi latus rectum l constant. And in case one wants to see how
the orbital having a definite one year period T, alters its shape
when the areal velocity A is changed, one can use single string
and draw orbits by changing either the semi latus rectum l or
the semiminor axis b; the latter might be more convenient in
this case since whilebAl
To see how this method works, Figure 3 shows orbits char-
acterized by the same areal velocity but different one year pe-
riod. The string used to draw the larger orbit is twice as long as
the one used to draw the smaller orbit. The magnitude of the
mechanical energy, |E| = E, for the larger orbit is therefore one
half of that for the smaller orbit (Equation (2)). Accordingly,
the one year period on the larger orbit is about 2.8 times longer
than that on the smaller orbit (Equation (5)). Despite the dif-
ference in mechanical energy and one year period, they share
the same areal velocity that leads to the equal length of semi
latus rectum l.
Figure 4 illustrates, on the other hand, orbits of a planet
moving with the same one year period but with different areal
velocity. Having the same orbital period, they can all be drawn
with a string. Values of areal velocity for three orbits in the
figure are in the ratio of 3:2:1, so are the lengths of semiminor
axis (Equation (6)).
Circles around the fixed pin that represents the sun in these
figures have radii 2a, the length of the string used to draw each
orbit. Any orbit having the particular one year period specified
by the string used is drawn within the corresponding circle. It
might merit attention that eccentricity of the orbits shown here
is much exaggerated compared with that of actual planetary
orbits in our solar system.
For quantitative discussions, it is useful to prepare such
graph data as those showing the relation between one year pe-
riod T and the string length 2a:
2Ta (Figure 5), and
Figure 3.
Planetary orbits with the same areal velocity
but different orbital period. See text for details.
Figure 4.
Planetary orbits with the same orbital period
but different areal velocity. See text for details.
Figure 5.
Conversion graph assisting to draw orbits with
various orbital period, i.e. one year period.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 7
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
between the areal velocity A and semi latus rectum l: l
(Figure 6).
the Kepler’s laws without recourse to university level mathe-
matics and physics. Not only qualitative features of the orbits
but also quantitative dependence of the orbital shape on the
quantities appearing in the Kepler’s laws can be readily ana-
lyzed not with mathematical but with geometrical procedures.
The method thus provides a relevant intermediate step to stu-
dents prior to the study of more advanced, fully-developed
theory of central force problems.
The elementary pen-and-string method to draw ellipsis is well
applicable to the examination of planetary orbits on the basis of
Goldstein, H. (1980). Classical mechanics. Reading: Addison-Wesley.
Goodstein, D. L., & Goodstein, J. R. (1999). Feynman’s lost lecture.
New York: Norton.
Okabe, Y., & Yajima, Y. (2004). A Note on the Feynman’s geometrical
demonstration of elliptic motion of planets around the sun. Bulletin
of the Faculty of Education Ibaraki University (Natuaral Sciences),
53, 81-86.
Yajima, Y., & Okabe, Y. (2006). Wakuseikidou no Sakuzuhou (A
method to construct planetary orbits). Butsuri Kyouiku (Physics
Education), 54, 276-281.
Figure 6.
Conversion graph assisting to draw orbits
having the same one year period but mov-
ing with various areal velocity.