Low Earth orbit


A low Earth orbit (LEO) is an orbit around Earth with a period of 128 minutes or less (making at least 11.25 orbits per day) and an eccentricity less than 0.25.[1] Most of the artificial objects in outer space are in LEO, with an altitude never more than about one-third of the radius of Earth.[2]

Orbit size comparison of GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, BeiDou-2, and Iridium constellations, the International Space Station, the Hubble Space Telescope, and geostationary orbit (and its graveyard orbit), with the Van Allen radiation belts and the Earth to scale.[a]
The Moon's orbit is around 9 times as large as geostationary orbit.[b] (In the SVG file, hover over an orbit or its label to highlight it; click to load its article.)

The term LEO region is also used for the area of space below an altitude of 2,000 km (1,200 mi) (about one-third of Earth's radius).[3] Objects in orbits that pass through this zone, even if they have an apogee further out or are sub-orbital, are carefully tracked since they present a collision risk to the many LEO satellites.

All crewed space stations to date have been within LEO. From 1968 to 1972, the Apollo program's lunar missions sent humans beyond LEO. Since the end of the Apollo program, no human spaceflights have been beyond LEO.

Defining characteristicsEdit

A wide variety of sources[4][5][6] 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 based on 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 altitude limits in some LEO definitions.

The LEO region is defined by some sources as a region in space that LEO orbits occupy.[3][7][8] 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.


Orbital characteristicsEdit

The mean orbital velocity needed to maintain a stable low Earth orbit is about 7.8 kilometres per second (17,000 mph), but reduces for higher orbits. Calculated for a circular orbit of 200 kilometres (120 mi) it is 7.79 km/s, and for 1,500 kilometres (930 mi) it is 7.12 km/s.[9] The launch vehicle's delta-v needed to achieve low Earth orbit starts around 9.4 km/s.

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 much less than the Earth's radius. However, an object in orbit is in a permanent free fall around Earth, because in orbit both, the gravitational force and the centrifugal force balance out each other.[c] As a result, spacecrafts in orbit continue to stay in orbit, and people inside or outside such crafts continuously experience weightlessness.

Objects in LEO encounter atmospheric drag from gases in the thermosphere (approximately 80–600 km above the surface) or exosphere (approximately 600 km or 400 mi and higher), depending on orbit height. Orbits of satellites that reach altitudes below 300 km (190 mi) decay fast due to atmospheric drag. 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 of low-latitude places on Earth and have the lowest delta-v requirement (i.e., fuel spent) of any orbit, provided they have the direct (not retrograde) orientation with respect to the Earth's rotation. Orbits with a very high inclination angle to the equator are usually called polar orbits or Sun-synchronous 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, "very low Earth orbits" (VLEO) began to be seen in regulatory filings. These orbits, below about 450 km (280 mi), require the use of novel technologies for orbit raising because they operate in orbits that would ordinarily decay too soon to be economically useful.[10][11]


Roughly half an orbit of the International Space Station.

A low Earth orbit requires the lowest amount of energy for satellite placement. It provides high bandwidth and low communication latency. Satellites and space stations in LEO are more accessible for crew and servicing.

Since it requires less energy to place a satellite into a LEO, and a satellite there needs less powerful amplifiers for successful transmission, LEO is used for many communication applications, such as the Iridium phone system. Some communication satellites use much higher geostationary orbits and move at the same angular velocity as the Earth as to appear stationary above one location on the planet.


Unlike geosynchronous satellite, satellites in LEO have a small field of view and so can observe and communicate with only a fraction of the Earth at a time. That means that a network (or "constellation") of satellites is required to provide continuous coverage. Satellites in lower regions of LEO also suffer from fast orbital decay and require either periodic re-boosting to maintain a stable orbit or launching replacement satellites when old ones re-enter.


In fiction


  • The Chinese Tiangong-1 station was in orbit at about 355 kilometres (221 mi),[15] until its de-orbiting in 2018.
  • The Chinese Tiangong-2 station was in orbit at about 370 km (230 mi), until its de-orbiting in 2019.
  • Gravimetry missions such as GOCE orbited at about 255 km (158 mi) to measure Earth's gravity field at highest sensitivity. The mission lifetime was limited because of atmospheric drag. GRACE and GRACE-FO were orbiting at about 500 km (310 mi).

Space debrisEdit

The LEO environment is becoming congested with space debris because of the frequency of object launches.[16] This has caused growing concern in recent years, since collisions at orbital velocities can be dangerous or deadly. Collisions can produce additional space debris, creating a domino effect known as Kessler syndrome. The Combined Space Operations Center, part of United States Strategic Command (formerly the United States Space Command), tracks around 8,500 objects larger than 10 cm in LEO.[17] According to an Arecibo Observatory study, there may be one million dangerous objects larger than 2 millimeters in orbit,[18] which are too small to be visible from Earth-based observatories.[19]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Orbital periods and speeds are calculated using the relations 4π2R3 = T2GM and V2R = GM, where R is the radius of orbit in metres; T is the orbital period in seconds; V is the orbital speed in m/s; G is the gravitational constant, approximately 6.673×10−11 Nm2/kg2; M is the mass of Earth, approximately 5.98×1024 kg (1.318×1025 lb).
  2. ^ Approximately 8.6 times (in radius and length) when the Moon is nearest (that is, 363,104 km/42,164 km), to 9.6 times when the Moon is farthest (that is, 405,696 km/42,164 km).
  3. ^ It is important to note here that “free fall” by definition requires that gravity is the only force acting on the object. That definition is still fulfilled when falling around Earth, as the other force, the centrifugal force is a fictitious force.


  1. ^ "Current Catalog Files". Archived from the original on June 26, 2018. Retrieved July 13, 2018. LEO: Mean Motion > 11.25 & Eccentricity < 0.25
  2. ^ Sampaio, Jarbas; Wnuk, Edwin; Vilhena de Moraes, Rodolpho; Fernandes, Sandro (2014-01-01). "Resonant Orbital Dynamics in LEO Region: Space Debris in Focus". Mathematical Problems in Engineering. 2014: Figure 1: Histogram of the mean motion of the cataloged objects. doi:10.1155/2014/929810. Archived from the original on 2021-10-01. Retrieved 2018-07-13.
  3. ^ a b "IADC Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines" (PDF). INTER-AGENCY SPACE DEBRIS COORDINATION COMMITTEE: Issued by Steering Group and Working Group 4. September 2007. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2018-07-17. Retrieved 2018-07-17. Region A, Low Earth Orbit (or LEO) Region – spherical region that extends from the Earth's surface up to an altitude (Z) of 2,000 km
  4. ^ "Definition of LOW EARTH ORBIT". Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Archived from the original on 2018-07-08. Retrieved 2018-07-08.
  5. ^ "Frequently Asked Questions". FAA. Archived from the original on 2020-06-02. Retrieved 2020-02-14. LEO refers to orbits that are typically less than 2,400 km (1,491 mi) in altitude.
  6. ^ Campbell, Ashley (2015-07-10). "SCaN Glossary". NASA. Archived from the original on 2020-08-03. Retrieved 2018-07-12. Low Earth Orbit (LEO): A geocentric orbit with an altitude much less than the Earth's radius. Satellites in this orbit are between 80 and 2000 kilometers above the Earth's surface.
  7. ^ "What Is an Orbit?". NASA. David Hitt : NASA Educational Technology Services, Alice Wesson : JPL, J.D. Harrington : HQ;, Larry Cooper : HQ;, Flint Wild : MSFC;, Ann Marie Trotta : HQ;, Diedra Williams : MSFC. 2015-06-01. Archived from the original on 2018-03-27. Retrieved 2018-07-08. LEO is the first 100 to 200 miles (161 to 322 km) of space.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: others (link)
  8. ^ Steele, Dylan (2016-05-03). "A Researcher's Guide to: Space Environmental Effects". NASA. p. 7. Archived from the original on 2016-11-17. Retrieved 2018-07-12. the low-Earth orbit (LEO) environment, defined as 200–1,000 km above Earth's surface
  9. ^ "LEO parameters". www.spaceacademy.net.au. Archived from the original on 2016-02-11. Retrieved 2015-06-12.
  10. ^ Crisp, N. H.; Roberts, P. C. E.; Livadiotti, S.; Oiko, V. T. A.; Edmondson, S.; Haigh, S. J.; Huyton, C.; Sinpetru, L.; Smith, K. L.; Worrall, S. D.; Becedas, J. (August 2020). "The Benefits of Very Low Earth Orbit for Earth Observation Missions". Progress in Aerospace Sciences. 117: 100619. arXiv:2007.07699. Bibcode:2020PrAeS.11700619C. doi:10.1016/j.paerosci.2020.100619. S2CID 220525689. Archived from the original on 2021-03-19. Retrieved 2021-03-29.
  11. ^ Messier, Doug (2017-03-03). "SpaceX Wants to Launch 12,000 Satellites". Parabolic Arc. Archived from the original on 2020-01-22. Retrieved 2018-01-22.
  12. ^ "Higher Altitude Improves Station's Fuel Economy". NASA. Archived from the original on 2015-05-15. Retrieved 2013-02-12.
  13. ^ Holli, Riebeek (2009-09-04). "NASA Earth Observatory". earthobservatory.nasa.gov. Archived from the original on 2018-05-27. Retrieved 2015-11-28.
  14. ^ "Space station from 2001: A Space Odyssey".
  15. ^ ""天宫一号成功完成二次变轨"". Archived from the original on 2011-11-13. Retrieved 2020-10-13.
  16. ^ United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (2010). "Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines of the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space". Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC). Retrieved October 19, 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  17. ^ Fact Sheet: Joint Space Operations Center Archived 2010-02-03 at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ "archive of astronomy: space junk". Archived from the original on 2017-03-20. Retrieved 2009-04-15.
  19. ^ ISS laser broom, project Orion Archived 2011-07-28 at the Wayback Machine

  This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.