Keplerian elements are the inputs to the SGP4 standard mathematical model of spacecraft orbits. They specify the size and shape of the orbit, and how the orbit is oriented with respect to the Earth at a particular moment in time. With the “Keps”, the correct time, and your station location, you can compute when the satellite will be in view and where to point your antennas.
If you really want to know the mathematics behind the elements, see
Spacetrack Report No. 3 from NORAD. Most amateur radio tracking programs use the SGP4 model described in this report.
AMSAT publishes Keplerian elements weekly by subscription to the “KEPS” mailing list. Objects on these lists are chosen based on their interest to radio amateurs and use the common names rather than the more complicated ones found on other lists.
Weekly updates are completely adequate for most satellites whose orbit is not being actively managed. A significant exception is the International Space Station, the ISS. Because of its large size, it does experience a significant drag which over a few days introduces noticeable deviations. Additionally, its orbit is periodically raised by the use of thrusters. These combined factors require much more frequent updates to the Keplerian elements to insure accurate predictions. To satisfy this requirement, AMSAT updates the ISS Keplerian elements several times daily, and when a burn is scheduled, uses the predicted information from NASA to provide the most accurate information for the orbit after the change. The NASA (2-line) (NASA Bare) below includes the special handling of the ISS information to insure currency.
Here are the current bulletins:
NASA (2-line) format elements for all satellites of interest to radio amateurs. Contains brief information on the format. This format is also known as Two Line Elements or TLE’s.
Additionally, AMSAT maintains NASA (2-line) stripped of headers The format is similar to the NASA (2 line) format bulletins, but may be updated more frequently. For example, the International Space Station elements are updated at least once a day based on data from NASA’s Johnson Spaceflight Center. These data are used as input to the AMSAT Pass Predictions page.
AMSAT (verbose) format elements date back decades to the early days of amateur satellites when the information was typed into the program manually. At one time they were distributed by packet radio, surface mail, and even read over the air. Each value was given in a human-readable format. Today tracking programs still in use have the ability to read the compact 2-line elements. Because there is no longer a requirement for this format, distribution was terminated in early 2015.
You can find lots of Keplerian elements and related information on these other sites, including NOAA weather, Iridium, and all other unclassified satellites not strictly of interest to the amateur radio community:
CelesTrak by T.S. Kelso. TLE’s for selected spacecraft, updated 4-6 times a day.
Space-Track NORAD source for TLE’s going back to Sputnik 1. Requires a free account for access. Current satellites updated 4-6 times a day.
Orbitessera by Ken Ernandes. General information on orbital elements.