Astronomy:List of orbits

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Comparison of geostationary Earth orbit with GPS, GLONASS, Galileo and Compass (medium Earth orbit) satellite navigation system orbits with the International Space Station, Hubble Space Telescope and Iridium constellation orbits, and the nominal size of the Earth.[lower-alpha 1] The Moon's orbit is around 9 times larger (in radius and length) than geostationary orbit.[lower-alpha 2]
The three most important Earth Orbits and the inner and outer Van Allen radiation belt
Various Earth orbits to scale:
  •   the innermost, the red dotted line represents the orbit of the International Space Station (ISS);
  •      cyan represents low Earth orbit,
  •      yellow represents medium Earth orbit,
  •   The green dashed line represents the orbit of Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, and
  •   the outermost, the black dashed line represents geostationary orbit.

This is a list of types of gravitational orbit classified by various characteristics.

Common abbreviations


List of abbreviations of common Earth orbits

Orbit Name
GEO Geostationary orbit
LEO Low Earth orbit
MEO Medium Earth orbit
SSO Sun-synchronous orbit
VLEO Very Low Earth Orbit

List of abbreviations of other orbits

Orbit Name
GSO Geosynchronous orbit
GTO Geostationary transfer orbit
HCO Heliocentric orbit
HEO Highly elliptical orbit
NRHO Near-rectilinear halo orbit


The following is a list of types of orbits:

Centric classifications

For orbits centered about planets other than Earth and Mars and for the dwarf planet Pluto, the orbit names incorporating Greek terminology is less commonly used

  • Mercury orbit (Hermeocentric orbit, named after Hermes): An orbit around the planet Mercury.
  • Venus orbit (Cytherocentric orbit, named after Cythera): An orbit around the planet Venus.
  • Jupiter orbit (Zenocentric orbit, named after Zeus,[3] or Latin equivalent Jovicentric): An orbit around the planet Jupiter.
  • Saturn orbit (Cronocentric orbit, named after Cronus,[3] or Latin equivalent Saturnicentric): An orbit around the planet Saturn.
  • Uranus orbit (Uranocentric orbit, named after Uranus): An orbit around the planet Uranus.
  • Neptune orbit (Poseidocentric orbit, named after Poseidon): An orbit around the planet Neptune.
  • Pluto orbit (Hadeocentric orbit, named after Hades): An orbit around the dwarf planet Pluto.

Altitude classifications for geocentric orbits

  • Transatmospheric orbit (TAO): geocentric orbits with an apogee above 100 km and perigee that intersects with the defined atmosphere.[4]
  • Very low Earth orbit (VLEO) is defined as altitudes between approximately 100 - 450 km above Earth’s surface.[5][6]
  • Low Earth orbit (LEO): geocentric orbits with altitudes below 2,000 km (1,200 mi).[7]
  • Medium Earth orbit (MEO): geocentric orbits ranging in altitude from 2,000 km (1,200 mi) to just below geosynchronous orbit at 35,786 kilometers (22,236 mi). Also known as an intermediate circular orbit. These are used for Global Navigation Satellite System spacecraft, such as GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, BeiDou. GPS satellites orbit at an altitude of 20,200 kilometers (12,600 mi) with an orbital period of almost 12 hours.[8]
  • Geosynchronous orbit (GSO) and geostationary orbit (GEO) are orbits around Earth matching Earth's sidereal rotation period.[1][9] Although terms are often used interchangeably, technically a geosynchronous orbit matches the Earth's rotational period, but the definition does not require it to have zero orbital inclination to the equator, and thus is not stationary above a given point on the equator, but may oscillate north and south during the course of a day. Thus, a geostationary orbit is defined as a geosynchronous orbit at zero inclination. Geosynchronous (and geostationary) orbits have a semi-major axis of 42,164 km (26,199 mi).[10] This works out to an altitude of 35,786 km (22,236 mi). Both complete one full orbit of Earth per sidereal day (relative to the stars, not the Sun).
  • High Earth orbit: geocentric orbits above the altitude of geosynchronous orbit (35,786 km or 22,236 mi).[8]

For Earth orbiting satellites below the height of about 800 km, the atmospheric drag is the major orbit perturbing force out of all non-gravitational forces.[11] Above 800 km, solar radiation pressure causes the largest orbital perturbations.[12] However, the atmospheric drag strongly depends on the density of the upper atmosphere, which is related to the solar activity, therefore the height at which the impact of the atmospheric drag is similar to solar radiation pressure varies depending on the phase of the solar cycle.

Inclination classifications

  • Inclined orbit: An orbit whose inclination in reference to the equatorial plane is not 0.
    • Polar orbit: An orbit that passes above or nearly above both poles of the planet on each revolution. Therefore, it has an inclination of (or very close to) either 90 degrees or −90 degrees.
    • Polar Sun-synchronous orbit (SSO): A nearly polar orbit that passes the equator at the same local solar time on every pass. Useful for image-taking satellites because shadows will be the same on every pass.
  • Non-inclined orbit: An orbit whose inclination is equal to zero with respect to some plane of reference.
  • Near equatorial orbit: An orbit whose inclination with respect to the equatorial plane is nearly zero. This orbit allows for rapid revisit times (for a single orbiting spacecraft) of near equatorial ground sites.

Directional classifications

  • Prograde orbit: An orbit that is in the same direction as the rotation of the primary (i.e. east on Earth). By convention, the inclination of a Prograde orbit is specified as an angle less than 90°.
  • Retrograde orbit: An orbit counter to the direction of rotation of the primary. By convention, retrograde orbits are specified with an inclination angle of more than 90°. Apart from those in Sun-synchronous orbit, few satellites are launched into retrograde orbit on Earth because the quantity of fuel required to launch them is greater than for a prograde orbit. This is because when the rocket starts out on the ground, it already has an eastward component of velocity equal to the rotational velocity of the planet at its launch latitude.

Eccentricity classifications

There are two types of orbits: closed (periodic) orbits, and open (escape) orbits. Circular and elliptical orbits are closed. Parabolic and hyperbolic orbits are open. Radial orbits can be either open or closed.

  • Circular orbit: An orbit that has an eccentricity of 0 and whose path traces a circle.
  • Elliptic orbit: An orbit with an eccentricity greater than 0 and less than 1 whose orbit traces the path of an ellipse.
  • Parabolic orbit: An orbit with the eccentricity equal to 1. Such an orbit also has a velocity equal to the escape velocity and therefore will escape the gravitational pull of the planet. If the speed of a parabolic orbit is increased it will become a hyperbolic orbit.
  • Hyperbolic orbit: An orbit with the eccentricity greater than 1. Such an orbit also has a velocity in excess of the escape velocity and as such, will escape the gravitational pull of the planet and continue to travel infinitely until it is acted upon by another body with sufficient gravitational force.
  • Radial orbit: An orbit with zero angular momentum and eccentricity equal to 1. The two objects move directly towards or away from each other in a straight-line.
    • Radial elliptic orbit: A closed elliptic orbit where the object is moving at less than the escape velocity. This is an elliptic orbit with semi-minor axis = 0 and eccentricity = 1. Although the eccentricity is 1, this is not a parabolic orbit.
    • Radial parabolic orbit: An open parabolic orbit where the object is moving at the escape velocity.
    • Radial hyperbolic orbit: An open hyperbolic orbit where the object is moving at greater than the escape velocity. This is a hyperbolic orbit with semi-minor axis = 0 and eccentricity = 1. Although the eccentricity is 1, this is not a parabolic orbit.

Synchronicity classifications

Geostationary orbit as seen from the north celestial pole. To an observer on the rotating Earth, the red and yellow satellites appear stationary in the sky above Singapore and Africa respectively.
  • Synchronous orbit: An orbit whose period is a rational multiple of the average rotational period of the body being orbited and in the same direction of rotation as that body. This means the track of the satellite, as seen from the central body, will repeat exactly after a fixed number of orbits. In practice, only 1:1 ratio (geosynchronous) and 1:2 ratios (semi-synchronous) are common.
    • Geosynchronous orbit (GSO): An orbit around the Earth with a period equal to one sidereal day, which is Earth's average rotational period of 23 hours, 56 minutes, 4.091 seconds. For a nearly circular orbit, this implies an altitude of approximately 35,786 kilometers (22,236 mi). The orbit's inclination and eccentricity may not necessarily be zero. If both the inclination and eccentricity are zero, then the satellite will appear stationary from the ground. If not, then each day the satellite traces out an analemma (i.e. a "figure-eight") in the sky, as seen from the ground. When the orbit is circular and the rotational period has zero inclination, the orbit is considered to also be geostationary. Also known as a Clarke orbit after the writer Arthur C. Clarke.[8]
      • Geostationary orbit (GEO): A circular geosynchronous orbit with an inclination of zero. To an observer on the ground this satellite appears as a fixed point in the sky. "All geostationary orbits must be geosynchronous, but not all geosynchronous orbits are geostationary."[8]
      • Tundra orbit: A synchronous but highly elliptic orbit with significant inclination (typically close to 63.4°) and orbital period of one sidereal day (23 hours, 56 minutes for the Earth). Such a satellite spends most of its time over a designated area of the planet. The particular inclination keeps the perigee shift small.[15]
    • Areosynchronous orbit (ASO): A synchronous orbit around the planet Mars with an orbital period equal in length to Mars' sidereal day, 24.6229 hours.
  • Subsynchronous orbit: A drift orbit close below GSO/GEO.
    • Semi-synchronous orbit: An orbit with an orbital period equal to half of the average rotational period of the body being orbited and in the same direction of rotation as that body. For Earth this means a period of just under 12 hours at an altitude of approximately 20,200 km (12,544.2 miles) if the orbit is circular.[16]
      • Molniya orbit: A semi-synchronous variation of a Tundra orbit. For Earth this means an orbital period of just under 12 hours. Such a satellite spends most of its time over two designated areas of the planet. An inclination of 63.4° is normally used to keep the perigee shift small.[15]
  • Supersynchronous orbit: Any orbit in which the orbital period of a satellite or celestial body is greater than the rotational period of the body which contains the barycenter of the orbit.

Orbits in galaxies or galaxy models

Pyramid orbit
  • Box orbit: An orbit in a triaxial elliptical galaxy that fills in a roughly box-shaped region.
  • Pyramid orbit: An orbit near a massive black hole at the center of a triaxial galaxy.[17] The orbit can be described as a Keplerian ellipse that precesses about the black hole in two orthogonal directions, due to torques from the triaxial galaxy.[18] The eccentricity of the ellipse reaches unity at the four corners of the pyramid, allowing the star on the orbit to come very close to the black hole.
  • Tube orbit: An orbit near a massive black hole at the center of an axisymmetric galaxy. Similar to a pyramid orbit, except that one component of the orbital angular momentum is conserved; as a result, the eccentricity never reaches unity.[18]

Special classifications

  • Sun-synchronous orbit: An orbit which combines altitude and inclination in such a way that the satellite passes over any given point of the planets's surface at the same local solar time. Such an orbit can place a satellite in constant sunlight and is useful for imaging, spy, and weather satellites.
  • Frozen orbit: An orbit in which natural drifting due to the central body's shape has been minimized by careful selection of the orbital parameters.
  • Orbit of the Moon: The orbital characteristics of the Moon. Average altitude of 384,403 kilometres (238,857 mi), elliptical-inclined orbit.
  • Beyond-low Earth orbit (BLEO) and beyond Earth orbit (BEO) are a broad class of orbits that are energetically farther out than low Earth orbit or require an insertion into a heliocentric orbit as part of a journey that may require multiple orbital insertions, respectively.
  • Near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO): an orbit currently planned in cislunar space, as a selenocentric orbit that will serve as a staging area for future missions. [19][20] Planned orbit for the NASA Lunar Gateway in circa 2024, as a highly-elliptical seven-day near-rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon, which would bring the small space station within 3,000 kilometers (1,900 mi) of the lunar north pole at closest approach and as far away as 70,000 kilometers (43,000 mi) over the lunar south pole.[21][22][23]
  • Distant retrograde orbit (DRO): A stable circular retrograde orbit (usually referring to Lunar Distant Retrograde Orbit). Stability means that satellites in DRO do not need to use station keeping propellant to stay in orbit. The lunar DRO is a high lunar orbit with a radius of approximately 61,500 km.[24] This was proposed[by whom?] in 2017 as a possible orbit for the Lunar Gateway space station, outside Earth-Moon L1 and L2.[20]
  • Decaying orbit: A decaying orbit is an orbit at a low altitude that decreases over time due atmospheric resistance. Used to dispose of dying artificial satellites or to aerobrake an interplanetary spacecraft.
  • Earth-trailing orbit, a heliocentric orbit that is placed such that the satellite will initially follow Earth but at a somewhat slower orbital angular speed, such that it moves further behind year by year. This orbit was used on the Spitzer Space Telescope in order to drastically reduce the heat load from the warm Earth from a more typical geocentric orbit used for space telescopes.[25]
  • Graveyard orbit (or disposal, junk orbit) : An orbit that satellites are moved into at the end of their operation. For geostationary satellites a few hundred kilometers above geosynchronous orbit.[26][27]
  • Parking orbit, a temporary orbit.
  • Transfer orbit, an orbit used during an orbital maneuver from one orbit to another.
  • Repeat orbit: An orbit where the ground track of the satellite repeats after a period of time.
  • Gangale orbit: a solar orbit near Mars whose period is one Martian year, but whose eccentricity and inclination both differ from that of Mars such that a relay satellite in a Gangale orbit is visible from Earth even during solar conjunction.[28]

Pseudo-orbit classifications

A diagram showing the five Lagrangian points in a two-body system with one body far more massive than the other (e.g. the Sun and the Earth). In such a system, L3L5 are situated slightly outside of the secondary's orbit despite their appearance in this small scale diagram.

See also


  1. Orbital periods and speeds are calculated using the relations 4π2R3 = T2GM and V2R = GM, where R = radius of orbit in metres, T = orbital period in seconds, V = orbital speed in m/s, G = gravitational constant ≈ 6.673×1011 Nm2/kg2, M = mass of Earth ≈ 5.98×1024 kg.
  2. Approximately 8.6 times when the Moon is nearest (363,104 km ÷ 42,164 km) to 9.6 times when the Moon is farthest (405,696 km ÷ 42,164 km).


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