What is the furthest Earth orbiting satellite?
What is its speed and purpose?
What is the furthest Earth orbiting satellite?
25$\begingroup$ Pretty sure it's the moon... :P $\endgroup$– user541686May 11, 2018 at 8:44
3$\begingroup$ How are you defining "highest orbit"? Highest apoapse? Highest periapse? Highest mean orbital altitude? $\endgroup$– BaldrickkMay 11, 2018 at 10:43
$\begingroup$ So highest apoapse then. It's good to be clear :) $\endgroup$– BaldrickkMay 11, 2018 at 10:58
6$\begingroup$ It is not the moon. $\endgroup$– MuzeMay 12, 2018 at 16:48
$\begingroup$ It was the moon for the original question ;). $\endgroup$– Magic Octopus UrnApr 17, 2019 at 17:50
I don't have a list to find the highest, but I suspect that Spektr-R RadioAstron (used for long baseline radio interferometry) is one of the highest altitudes that isn't associated with a Lagrange orbit.
The Moon interacts with its orbit, so the apogee changes over time. According to the User Handbook
the apogee distance will vary from 286,938 to 371,233 km
It has a very high eccentricity, so I believe there are others with a greater semi-major axis. I'm not sure which measure the question might want for "farthest out"
2$\begingroup$ Spektr-R is quite ahead of its time! There will be much more radio astronomy done from Spacecraft some day. $\endgroup$ May 11, 2018 at 7:45
$\begingroup$ Will the JWST be the highest once it is launched? $\endgroup$ Apr 14, 2020 at 15:11
$\begingroup$ I wouldn't consider earth-moon Lagrange points to be in "earth orbit", so it wouldn't affect this category. $\endgroup$ Apr 14, 2020 at 15:26
$\begingroup$ Does Spect-R complete an entire orbit in about 8.8 days? $\endgroup$– Joe JobsDec 10, 2020 at 20:55
$\begingroup$ About that, according to the graphs in uhoh's answer. $\endgroup$ Dec 10, 2020 at 20:59
note: @BillGray's answer of XL8D89E is the highest and the correct answer!
I found the following "far out" spacecraft:
- TESS (Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite) recently launched, not in final orbit yet
- IBEX or Interstellar Boundary Explorer
Here are their IDs:
TESS 43435 2018-038A Spektr-R 37755 2011-037A IBEX 33401 2008-051A Geotail 22049 1992-044A
I downloaded both TLEs and orbit data from JPL Horizons in order to piece together this qualitative data.
The problem is that for such high orbits, the gravity of the Sun and the Moon can push them around significantly so their orbits change over time, sometimes by quite a bit!
The all-time winner (of the four that I found) seems to be Geotail. Using historical TLEs shows Geotail's maximum semi-major axis of about 280,000 km or about 44 Earth radii, and a maximum apoapsis of over 500,000 km or about 81 Earth radii. However, according to the Japanese space agency's website (see also Wikipedia), the orbit is designed to cover the magnetotail over a wide range of distances: 8 Re to 210 Re from the earth. This is over 1,300,000 km from the Earth! In fact, some sections of that site and those of NASA/ESA suggest the maximum apogee may have been an even higher 220 Re, over 1,400,000 km distant!
This would not likely have been long term stable, and so after sampling the tail of the magnetosphere out there it was ramped down closer to Earth.
I have two plots for TESS, both current data from TLEs and future data (the big DOT) after it will use a close swing-by maneuver with the Moon and then another propulsive maneuver in order to reach its half lunar month orbit. Once that happens, TESS will be the longest period artificial satellite around the Earth, at least one with a fairly stable orbit and whose information is available publicly.
TESS has this orbit in order to spend most of its time staring at nearby stars looking for exoplanets, then it makes a close pass by Earth to download data, once every two weeks.
You can read more about how TESS' orbit works in this answer to the question TESS orbit and moon resonance.
I've put a plot of TESS' calculated orbit from Horizons below. The green, tightly repeating orbit is the Moon's. The red orbit, inclined, evolving, changing orbit is for TESS only for a few years currently in the Horizon's simulation. It's almost a miracle that it can remain so close to its orbit. Well, it's "just F=ma" (roughly), but it's still beautiful!
TESS might represent the highest non-Lagrangian Geocentric orbit that is stable over decades. It was carefully designed to have half the period of the Moon in order to cancel out perturbing effects. It is called a 2:1 resonant orbit. For orbits higher than that, lunar perturbations may become problematic.
Earth-Moon Lagrange orbits are Geocentric orbits that are in 1:1 resonance with the Moon (they are not lunar orbits). They will have their own stability issues and require station keeping. A particularly stable Geocentric orbit which is associated with the Earth-Moon Lagrange points is the Near Rectilinear Halo Orbit. Read more about it in the questions and their answers:
The Halo orbit associated with the Earth-Moon Lagrange L1 and L2 points are probably the highest Geocentric orbits that are also usefully stable. Instead of being perturbed by the Moon's gravity, they remain in resonance with it and use it to provide additional stability. However, they still require station keeping.
- Why is a near rectilinear halo orbit proposed for LOP-G (formerly known as Deep Space Gateway?)
- What is a near rectilinear halo orbit?
- LOPG/Deep Space Gateway - What is a cislunar orbit?
below: I've put a plot of TESS' calculated orbit from Horizons below. The green, tightly repeating orbit is the Moon's. The red orbit, inclined, evolving, changing orbit is for TESS only for a few years currently in the Horizon's simulation.
$\begingroup$ What orbits is in your last picture? $\endgroup$– MuzeMay 11, 2018 at 9:59
$\begingroup$ It's TESS and the Moon around the Earth. I described it earlier but I'll move it closer. $\endgroup$ May 11, 2018 at 10:00
$\begingroup$ Thanks I think that answers my other question as well. The green one is like the one I drew. $\endgroup$– MuzeMay 11, 2018 at 10:05
$\begingroup$ @Muze I updated the drawing. The Moon's orbit looked elliptical because the scales were not equal. Once I required X, Y, and Z scales to be equal, you can see the Moon's orbit is now a circle. $\endgroup$ May 11, 2018 at 10:10
2$\begingroup$ In the last plot, the moon's orbit seems to be much more repeatable in the bottom left corner, and much more variable elsewhere. Is this a genuine effect, or an artifact of the simulation? $\endgroup$ May 11, 2018 at 11:41
XL8D89E, with ~1,000,000 km apogee
A late reply here, but perhaps it'll be of interest to those finding this post as I did. Space-Track is not especially helpful for tracking the really high-flying junk (it's not very important to them).
The current record-holder for height is XL8D89E, an unidentified object in a roughly three-month orbit found by the Catalina Sky Survey in 2015. It's probably a recovery of an object found in 2006, though I can't say that I've actually linked the orbits. Information about several objects with orbital periods of a month or so, such as 2010-050B (Chang'e 2 booster), 2013-070B (Chang'3 booster), and some others, is available here.
2$\begingroup$ That's amazing, ~2/3 of the way to the Hill sphere at apo! $\endgroup$ Dec 16, 2019 at 5:34
$\begingroup$ To anyone who (like I did!) has some trouble understanding the Project Pluto data: Perigee is "q" and is measured in km for geocentric orbits, while apogee is "Q". So this object has perigee 639758.14925 +/- 66.1 km (wow!) and apogee 970948.33975 +/- 52.4 km. However, the apogee of "Q 0.0069301340 +/- 1.07e-5" for 6Q0B44E may be in different units and I can't work that out. $\endgroup$ Dec 27, 2019 at 18:35
2$\begingroup$ (Author of the Project Pluto data here) Sorry, stumbled over this ~2 years later! That Q=0.0069301 is in astronomical units, so 1036733 km. For historical reasons involving limited space, both q and Q are shown in kilometers within a million km and in AU outside that. (And generally, you'd want to switch units to AU at some point anyway.) $\endgroup$ Jun 9, 2021 at 17:44
$\begingroup$ added some fanfare to help bring eyes to the correct answer. $\endgroup$ Feb 7, 2022 at 21:02
It’s a bit of a cheat, but a satellite at L4 or L5 is roughly 100 million miles from Earth, quite stable, and has a one year period to its motion around Earth. That’s seems to be the farthest stable & orbit-like setup.
Whether one considers L4 and L5 “orbiting the Earth” is a question for another day...
10$\begingroup$ No, today is a good day. These are not true orbits around the Earth. They are definitely Heliocentric orbits that happen to be in loose 1:1 resonance with the Earth. If the Earth suddenly disappeared, they would continue to move in nearly the same orbit around the Sun, with only a small change in orbital parameters, few percent at most. Venus "goes around" the Earth every 584 days, but we don't say it "orbits" the Earth. $\endgroup$ May 11, 2018 at 4:51
1$\begingroup$ @uhoh The distance and angle to Venus shows complex motion, including retrograde motion. On the other hand, viewed from Earth, the celestial position of L4 moves more regularly than the Moon. Yes, the force of the sun on an L4 object is larger than the force of the Earth, but that’s also true of the Moon. So while I agree that the Earth isn’t at the focus of a Keplerian ellipse for L4, there certainly are reasons to think of then as an answer to the question. YMMV. $\endgroup$ May 11, 2018 at 5:34
6$\begingroup$ If the Sun disappears, the Moon stays in orbit around the Earth very nicely. If the Sun disappears, an object at Sun-Earth L4 or L5 will not stay in any kind of orbit with the Earth and will just fly away as if it had never really known the Earth on a first-name basis. These Earth-Trojan orbits are so strongly perturbed by Venus that they aren't very real at all in fact. $\endgroup$ May 11, 2018 at 7:42
1$\begingroup$ I consider your answer to be fully within the "spirit" of the question. The OP did ask for an Earth orientated answer. A Lagrange point (some at least) seems to me reasonable option for a very large, very slow "orbit around the Earth" from any practical point of view. Calling it heliocentric, although true, does not invalidate this answer and it's probably more of a nomenclature issue than an objective space faring concept. $\endgroup$– armatitaMay 11, 2018 at 12:15
2$\begingroup$ I agree with uhoh here. Whether a Sun-Earth libration orbit is an Earth-centered orbit is precisely relevant to the question at hand, and in any reasonable projection it's obvious that such an orbit is not Earth-centered. See e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_TK7 It is not a nomenclature issue, it's fundamental. $\endgroup$ May 11, 2018 at 18:52
It all depends on how you define "earth orbiting", and if the spacecraft still needs to be functional.
STEREO-Behind got out to more than 2AU, and it's on its way back now. As it orbits the sun at slightly more than 1AU, it will go "around" the Earth. Unfortunately, we're currently out of communications with it, and they don't know if they'll be able to recover it. (Although the closer it gets to Earth, the easier it should be... assuming it's not rolling so fast that communications would be impossible, or if it's rolling such that the solar panels aren't getting any power)
STEREO-Ahead is less than 1AU from the sun, so doesn't "orbit" the Earth.
As shown in the graphic at https://space.stackexchange.com/a/58177/12508, the Wind spacecraft went through several periods of so called petal orbits (because the trace of the orbit looks like a flower petal) with apoapses up to ~200 Earth radii (~1,274,000 km). It also went through a series of prograde orbits sending it >320 Earth radii (>2,038,400 km) along the $\pm$Y-GSE direction relative to Earth. These are all ignoring the periods when Wind was orbiting either L1 or L2. Though this wouldn't change much as the prograde orbits took Wind further from Earth than either of these Lagrange points.