Most of geostationary satellites are launched at geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) first by rocket's upper stage. Than satellites separate and circularize the orbit by own propulsion. The upper stage is left at GTO - an elliptical orbit, usually with parameters like 180-200 km high at perigee, 35000 km high at apogee. The final stage's burn is performed at perigee to maximize efficiency because of Oberth effect.

The orbit of an upper stage will decay because of low perigee due to atmospheric drag. My question is: how much time GTO stages usually spend in the orbit before reentry? Months? years? decades?

In this anwer Falcon-9 stage reentered less than 4 months after launch. Is this lifetime typical?

Is any statistics available about GTO stages lifetimes?

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    $\begingroup$ in another answer for that linked question there is a link to a table compiled on Reddit. It is a bit old and contains just a few entries about SpaceX. But it already shows that the times range from ~4 months to year, year and a half, to years in some cases - "Eutelsat 115B" second stage was in 410x63255 orbit and afaik is still up there after almost 4 years and going to take a few more afaik. $\endgroup$
    – jkavalik
    Commented Dec 31, 2018 at 9:38

1 Answer 1


The typical lifetime of an upper stage rocket body (in GTO) varies from few weeks to few decades. This large variation is due to the sensitivity of the orbital evolution to the initial launch conditions, atmospheric density variations, etc (http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/2004AdSpR..34.1227S).

https://aerospace.org/reentries has a nice database of launch dates and re-entry times of a number of space objects.


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