Low Earth orbit

Comparison of geostationary, GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, Compass (MEO), International Space Station, Hubble Space Telescope, Iridium constellation and graveyard orbits, with the Van Allen radiation belts and the Earth to scale.[a] The Moon's orbit is around 9 times larger than geostationary orbit.[b] (In the SVG file, hover over an orbit or its label to highlight it; click to load its article.)

A low Earth orbit (LEO) is defined by Space-Track.org as an Earth-centered orbit with at least 11.25 periods per day (an orbital period of 128 minutes or less) and an eccentricity less than 0.25.[1] Most of the manmade objects in space are in LEO orbits.[2] A histogram of the mean motion of the cataloged objects shows that the number of objects drops significantly beyond 11.25.[3]

There is a large variety of other sources[4][5][6] that define LEO in terms of altitude. The altitude of an object in an elliptic orbit can vary significantly along the orbit. Even for circular orbits, the altitude above ground can vary by as much as 30 km (19 mi) (especially for polar orbits) due to the oblateness of Earth's spheroid figure and local topography. While definitions in terms of altitude are inherently ambiguous, most of them fall within the range specified by an orbit period of 128 minutes because, according to Kepler's third law, this corresponds to a semi-major axis of 8,413 km (5,228 mi). For circular orbits, this in turn corresponds to an altitude of 2,042 km (1,269 mi) above the mean radius of Earth, which is consistent with some of the upper limits in the LEO definitions in terms of altitude.

The LEO region is defined by some sources as the region in space that LEO orbits occupy.[7][8][9][10] Some highly elliptical orbits may pass through the LEO region near their lowest altitude (or perigee) but are not in an LEO Orbit because their highest altitude (or apogee) exceeds 2,000 km (1,200 mi). Sub-orbital objects can also reach the LEO region but are not in an LEO orbit because they re-enter the atmosphere. The distinction between LEO orbits and the LEO region is especially important for analysis of possible collisions between objects which may not themselves be in LEO but could collide with satellites or debris in LEO orbits.

The International Space Station conducts operations in LEO. All crewed space stations to date, as well as the majority of satellites, have been in LEO. The altitude record for human spaceflights in LEO was Gemini 11 with an apogee of 1,374.1 km (853.8 mi). Apollo 8 was the first mission to carry humans beyond LEO on December 21–27, 1968. The Apollo program continued during the four-year period spanning 1968 through 1972 with 24 astronauts who flew lunar flights but since then there have been no human spaceflights beyond LEO.

Orbital characteristics

The mean orbital velocity needed to maintain a stable low Earth orbit is about 7.8 km/s, but reduces with increased orbital altitude. Calculated for circular orbit of 200 km it is 7.79 km/s and for 1500 km it is 7.12 km/s.[11] The delta-v needed to achieve low Earth orbit starts around 9.4 km/s. Atmospheric and gravity drag associated with launch typically adds 1.3–1.8 km/s to the launch vehicle delta-v required to reach normal LEO orbital velocity of around 7.8 km/s (28,080 km/h).[12]


The pull of gravity in LEO is only slightly less than on the earth's surface. This is because the distance to LEO from the earth's surface is far less than the earth's radius. However, an object in orbit is, by definition, in free fall, since there is no force holding it up. As a result objects in orbit, including people, experience a sense of weightlessness, even though they are not actually without weight.

Objects in LEO encounter atmospheric drag from gases in the thermosphere (approximately 80–500 km above the surface) or exosphere (approximately 500 km and up), depending on orbit height. Due to atmospheric drag, satellites do not usually orbit below 300 km. Objects in LEO orbit Earth between the denser part of the atmosphere and below the inner Van Allen radiation belt.

Equatorial low Earth orbits (ELEO) are a subset of LEO. These orbits, with low inclination to the Equator, allow rapid revisit times and have the lowest delta-v requirement (i.e., fuel spent) of any orbit. Orbits with a high inclination angle to the equator are usually called polar orbits.

Higher orbits include medium Earth orbit (MEO), sometimes called intermediate circular orbit (ICO), and further above, geostationary orbit (GEO). Orbits higher than low orbit can lead to early failure of electronic components due to intense radiation and charge accumulation.

In 2017, a very-low LEO orbit began to be seen in regulatory filings. This orbit, referred to as "VLEO", requires the use of novel technologies for orbit raising because they operate in orbits that would ordinarily decay too soon to be economically useful.[13]

Other Languages
한국어: 지구 저궤도
Bahasa Indonesia: Orbit bumi rendah
Bahasa Melayu: Orbit rendah Bumi
日本語: 低軌道
norsk nynorsk: Låg jordbane
Simple English: Low Earth orbit
slovenščina: Nizkozemeljska orbita
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Niska Zemljina orbita
Basa Sunda: Orbit Bumi Handap
中文: 近地轨道